Is there such a thing?
Grief makes us act in weird ways. We act irrationally. We say things we don’t mean. We do things we don’t mean to do. We’re sad, we’re upset, we’re in shock. It eats at us like acid, slowly deteriorating the structural integrity of our lives, destroying us whole. We’re left falling down a dark, bleak tunnel with no shred of light on the other end, no semblance of hope or savior apparent, no safety net to catch us. And you think, maybe the only way to survive is to open your arms to the cold indifferent universe, welcome the chaos, and smile as you fall.
That’s THUNDER ROAD.
Jim Cummings’ feature directorial debut, based on his 2016 short film of the same name, opens with a Texas Police Officer, Jim Arnaud, in the throws of loss. He stands alone before a congregation, a lonely coffin behind him. His mother. Irrational rationality has taken hold, a reaction to the overwhelming grief he feels over her death. He has choreographed a dance to honor his mother’s life as a dance instructor. The song? Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’. His mother used to sing it to him when he was a child. It soothed him. It soothed her. He laments how he treated his mother. He regrets how she tried so hard to be there for him, to help him, to keep him upright. At the time he thrust these things aside because it was just mom. Now he sees the kindness. Now he sees the love. But he never said anything. So he decides to pay tribute to her in a way he thinks she would have loved. But the music doesn’t play. The stereo doesn’t work. There is no Springsteen. Only silence. But he’s determined. He decides to do it anyway. He dances in silent sincerity, like a grief stricken Napoleon Dynamite. His arms flapping wildly, his feet clopping on the hardwood floors of the church house in discordant rhythm. People stare. They record videos. His daughter tries to run.
Jim is standing at the epicenter of a nervous breakdown and the breakdown of his life as he knows it. He is separated from his wife, sees his disgruntled daughter rarely. He is pulled off of active duty because he gets lost in his grief and anguish. He has no money. He is served divorce papers as he enters the Police Department. His wife wants to take his daughter away. He makes a dumb wisecrack he regrets. She hangs up. He’s lost. Adrift like a leaf caught in a wild wind.
His dance sequence comes back to haunt him. It’s used as evidence of his unsound mind in court. He tries to argue but his argument comes out as threat. The judge rules against him. He’s lost his daughter. He returns to work and fights with his partner. Lost in his seemingly endless anguish, he unknowingly pulls his gun. He wouldn’t have used it, but.. It’s the end. He turns over his badge, his gun, his uniform. He’s left naked, screaming, spittle hanging from his lower lip, his underwear torn, his ass hanging out in the wind.
Everything seems to be going wrong.
Just as things go bad, they get worse and worse and, finally, worse. Then you hit the bottom. When you get there you look around. It’s dark. There’s no light. But.. there are people down there. Maybe you know them. Maybe you don’t. But.. You’re not alone. It’s then that you realize, well. Maybe this isn’t so bad.
THUNDER ROAD is a movie that captures the topsy-turvy insanity of life in perfect detail. It never overextends itself. It never glorifies anything or anyone. It doesn’t demonize. It simply is. It’s funny, sad, dramatic, absurd, and intense. It’s a difficult road to travel down, but travel down it we must.
As Jim Arnaud takes his daughter in the end, away from the mess and tangle of their lives, we’re left thinking of the lyrics of the song which gave the film it’s name:
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks
THUNDER ROAD is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and iTunes