Thunder Road begins with a bizarre, funny yet strangely affecting 10-minute eulogy by grieving police officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) at his mother’s funeral. Jim pays tribute to his dead mother in a sobbing, stuttering and downright weird speech which goes off on a number of wild tangents and culminates in a hilariously awkward dance routine to the titular Bruce Springsteen song. It’s a ballsy way to start a film, plunging the audience straight into an uncomfortable and striking melding of comedy and tragedy. It encapsulates what’s to come as Cummings brilliantly maintains a balance between laughs and poignancy throughout this thrillingly unique exploration of grief.
Adapted from Cummings’ award-winning 2016 short film of the same name, Thunder Road follows Jim in the aftermath of his loss. After the funeral, Jim goes out to work with his well-meaning partner Nate (Nican Robinson) only to be told he must have a week off after he violently disciplines an old homeless man. At home Jim tries to bond with the only positive in his life, his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr). Yet he only gets to see Crystal sporadically and his ex-wife has now filed for divorce along with claiming for sole custody of their daughter. Tensions soon begin to rise between the two parents and Jim’s own mental state is quickly unravelling.
There’s not a lot of narrative to the film, but that’s okay when you have such an engaging central performance and dynamic central character. Cummings is captivating as Jim. He balances so many emotions – swinging from awkwardly polite to explosively angry to uncontrollably tearful. He’s constructed a wholly original, exciting character who is at once sweetly endearing and pretty objectionable in some of his abrasive behaviour. The layers and complexity of Jim are manifold and in a rather sparse narrative, which does sometimes dip into convention, Cummings’ magnetic turn keeps things constantly engaging. It’s a truly fresh, darkly funny and moving vision of a man on the edge of self-destruction.
Kendal Farr puts in a naturalistic, mature performance as Crystal and enables her connection with Cummings to feel authentic. Some of Thunder Road’s most effective moments are the humorous and heartfelt exchanges between Farr and Cummings. One scene in particular, where Jim goes out of his way to master a fast-paced hand clapping routine with his daughter, is a poignant and hilarious high point which shows just how far Jim will go to try and connect with his daughter. Cummings also showcases flair behind the camera adeptly using intense close ups, wide shots and long takes to capture the entirety of his multifaceted performance.
Thunder Road is a wonderfully offbeat and raw portrayal of despair and the strange forms it can take. With this tour-de-force performance Cummings has announced himself as a real comedic talent with a deceptive amount of heart.