Meet Jim Cummings: this generation’s Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith and David Gordon Green. A voice that has arrived to shake up and rattle the cage of independent American cinema. One that aims to help ensure that there is a future for American cinema outside of the endless blockbuster fare that all gels into the same gelatinous blob.
With a wealth of short films under his belt, Cummings brings his immense talent to his second feature film, Thunder Road. Wearing all of the hats as writer, director, editor, and actor, Cummings takes the lead as Officer Jim Arnaud – a man who is mourning the death of his mother, and is moving forward with his life after a messy divorce and custody battle. To say that Jim’s life is a bit of a mess is an understatement, and it’s clear that the toll that this tragedy and trauma has taken on Jim is wearing him down, as we bear witness to in a searing, unbroken ten minute opening where Jim tries to eulogise his mother as best as he can in front of an increasingly uncomfortable church. When the CD player that he’s brought to play Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road fails to work, Jim improvises and soldiers on, acting out the dance that he was going to perform to the song, shuffling along through tears. It’s painful to watch, but devastatingly hilarious.
So opens Thunder Road. What unfurls after this stunning scene is eighty more minutes of superb acting, downright brilliant writing, and an uncomfortably perfect level of drama and comedy paired like a fine wine and a perfect steak. Cummings understands and empathises with Jim Arnaud completely, treading a thin line of embracing and agreeing with Arnaud’s questionable actions, and judging Arnaud for who he is. This is not a perfect person – in fact, he’s often reprehensible, but Cummings knows that to help humanise and qualify Jim Arnaud as someone we should care about, he needs to show him at points of reflection, when Arnaud realises what he has said and done. In one darkly comedic moment, Arnaud shouts at his ex that he wishes she were cleaned up by a freight train, only to have him apologising later on for uttering such a horrible thing to the mother of his child.
On paper, Arnaud is not someone you would actively want to empathise with, but under the guidance of Jim Cummings, this is a character that we are invited to understand and care about. It’s stunning that he manages to transform a figure of major contention – namely, white police officers in middle America – into someone who you not only empathise with, but understand why he is acting the way he does. Often I would find myself laughing, and then seconds later, crying. The tonal shifts are masterful and deliberately unsettling. I haven’t experienced this kind of transition between comedy and drama since the Coen brothers asked us to empathise with the supremely pathetic Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, or when P.J. Hogan and Toni Collette brought the desperate and depressed Muriel Heslop to life in Muriel’s Wedding. Some may label this kind of drama comedy as tragi-comedy, but it’s something entirely unique.
Thunder Road is a profoundly brilliant slice of American independent cinema. There’s a fascinating, thrilling, exciting kind of revival occurring right now in the world of American cinema, and Jim Cummings is another vital voice working in the mix alongside Kogonada (Columbus), Chloé Zhao (The Rider), Yen Tan (1985), and Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.). There is a wealth of other great voices out there too, which is why the simple fact that on the week that one of the biggest films in history being released, both Thunder Road and 1985 have landed in Australian cinemas. If you care about cinema as a whole, then it is absolutely vital that you head along and support these films. While it’s one thing to celebrate the artists bringing these films to life, it’s another thing to financially get behind them and support their work while they are in cinemas. We only have ourselves to blame if we don’t show our support with our dollars and these films aren’t given life in cinemas.
Director: Jim Cummings
Cast: Jim Cummings, Crystal Arnaud, Nican Robinson
Writer: Jim Cummings