Thunder Road (2018)
Director: Jim Cummings
Writer: Jim Cummings
Starring: Jim Cummings, Nican Robinson, Kendal Jarr, Jacqueline Doke, Chelsea Edmundson, Bill Wise, Jocelyn DeBoer, Macon Blair
Following the huge success of his short film of the same name in 2016, Jim Cummings (who also stars) last year presented audiences with the full-length version of Thunder Road, a quaint, small-town story of loss, love and friendship as seen through the eyes of a troubled young man. The hugely successful short film presented Cummings' character (also named Jim) as a goofy and erratic but likeable police officer struggling to cope with the recent death of his mother. In the feature film we learn more about how Jim suffers set-back after set-back as he attempts to get back on his feet following a devastating and life-changing event. However, while the short film managed to successfully blend tragedy and comedy in a deeply bizarre but astute single-camera monologue, its big brother struggles to transform this winning sprint into a marathon.
Rather than serving as a glimpse or a caricature of the feature length film, it quickly becomes clear that the short film in fact serves as Thunder Road's opening scenes, with the happily strange funeral scene simply introducing the film rather than summarising its tone and message. However, what is endearing in a 15 minute burst soon becomes irritable and abrasive when stretched to an hour an a half, with the character of Jim Arnaud being a significant source of issues. He is remarkably difficult character to warm to, in part due to his apparent inability to make any kind of sensible decision throughout the majority of the film's runtime - flawed personalities are typically the more interesting ones, but this particular character approaches many of his dilemmas with a level of idiocy which makes it difficult to sympathise with him. This is not helped by a performance which is riddled with oddly delivered dialogue which ranges from unusual to unnatural. His performance often presents as comedic, an approach which seems to either be an unfortunate accident or a misguided creative choice, with the quirky delivery of his lines being an ugly contrast to more realistic temperament possessed by the other elements of the film. Cummings provides several monologues throughout, and the dialogue in each is largely well-written, but too often are the dramatic elements undercut by awkward attempts at humour which distract from the often serious focus of the conversation. It is a frustrating experience, with each emotional blow being softened by a throw-away line when they should be landing hard. In a different film, with less screen-time devoted to him, this character could have been an enjoyable and comically calamitous element of a larger story. As the lead, however, with north of 90% of the focus aimed straight at him, the character of Jim Arnaud is a frustratingly difficult one to see past.
Other characters fair better, with Nican Robinson as Jim's colleague Nate providing an understated but genuine performance as a loyal friend who is unsure how to help, while Kendal Farr offers perhaps the film's best performance as Jim's daughter Crystal, a young girl simultaneously struggling with entering her early teens and being stuck between two increasingly dysfunctional and warring parents. Robinson in particular is often at odds with Jim's more erratic performance; he is far more grounded and less risible, feeling well placed within the film's tone, and is a character that you may be more likely to gravitate towards.
Thunder Road tells the story of Jim as he desperately tries to reassemble one part of his life whilst the other collapses around him. Much like the character, however, the film's narrative often seems to lack a sense of direction or awareness. The story can often feel clunky, with aspects appearing and reappearing in a seemingly arbitrary way. Characters are brought into the film early on with a suggestion that they will later play a large part but then deign to reappear again. The most significant casualty of this is Jacqueline Doke whose inclusion as an unnamed teenager seems to amount to very little despite Thunder Road teeing her up to be an important player later on in the film. Reversely, the film's conclusion arrives with minimal suggestion, presenting as confusing more than shocking, with the actions of some characters being unexpected at best, unbelievable at worst.
To its credit, Thunder Road offers a crisp and bright aesthetic with a charming and expressive soundtrack. When void of dialogue it is certainly a pleasant place to be, with its friendly local texture being ever-present throughout the film. An awkward lead performance, however, acts as a significant obstacle when attempting to blend together the dramatic and comedic events, leaving Thunder Road stuck between the two.
In one line: Despite following a short film which hinted at greatness, Thunder Road's feature length incarnation struggles to overcome the overbearing quirkiness of its lead character.