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Heartland Film Festival: ‘Thunder Road’ is a captivating ride from start to finish

It’s not surprising to see someone double-up between roles during  productions of a film. Writer and director, director and producer, actor  and producer, writer and actor; a lot of these roles tend to find  people taking multiple of them. The trouble comes when some directors  try to take on every role possible. A famous example of this is The Room, which  is written, directed, produced, and performed by Tommy Wiseau. Neil  Breen also does this for many of his films. They tend to turn into  vanity projects where the director in question wants to make themselves  appear the greatest man on Earth, even if they can’t deliver on that.

This makes writer/director/actor Jim Cummings (no, not the Winnie the Pooh voice actor) all the more impressive, considering Thunder Road is bizarre, hilarious, and fascinating in an actually intentional way.

Thunder Road follows Officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings), a man  who’s life slowly falls apart over the course of the film’s 92 minute  length. Starting with the funeral of his mother, Jim faces a messy  divorce, an unloving daughter, a falling out with co-workers, getting  fired from his job, and losing custody to his junkie ex-wife. In this  film, everything that can go wrong will go wrong for Officer Jim, and it  all goes wrong in such a captivating way. This lead role would  typically be a tough one to play in a way that an audience member can  both sympathize with him, but also understand that everything bad that  happens is his fault. Yet, this feat is achieved by an incredible  performance from the lead.

Jim Cummings manages to make this awkward, emotional wreck of a  character painfully real. Having a movie open on a roughly seven-minute  eulogy featuring a generous amount expletives, bipolar fits of crying  and joy, and a choreographed dance routine to no music playing would be  horribly uncomfortable in most films, but in the grand scheme of Thunder Road, it’s  not even the weirdest thing our lead does does. We spend every almost  every moment of this film with Jim and the effort he makes to repair his  life and his relationships, along with all of his failures. It’s hard  not to be sympathetic. The other performances are pretty great as well,  with the daughter (Kendall Farr) being a breakout star, proving it is  entirely possible to get a good child actor in a film.

Another great part of this film is the cinematography, which works  perfectly for the film. There’s a great variety of shots, and  particularly a lot of long takes on Jim Cummings ranting and raving at  various points. The opening sequence is one of my favorite shots in the  movie, particularly because it establishes the tone of the movie and its  gritty, realistic style while still managing to not be headache  inducing with shaky-cam. The scene with Jim talking to his daughter’s  teacher is also great for similar reasons, but with more subtle features  that make is something else.

That still leaves one aspect which is this film’s heart: the writing  and narrative. The writing, particularly the comedy elements of the  film, is perfect in how it is on a razor’s edge between comedy and  tragedy. The terrible things that happen to Officer Jim aren’t funny,  but his responses to them are. There’s an absurdist nature in the  writing of this film that makes it so engaging to sit through from start  to finish.

At its core, though, Thunder Road is about family, and that’s  what makes it so powerful. Officer Jim desperately tries to keep what  little family he has left together, but things are falling apart around  him as he struggles to pick up the pieces. Even his personal  relationships with friends are falling apart despite his best efforts.  His attempts to connect with his daughter are heart-warming, even though  his daughter isn’t very receptive.. The ending is also touching and  emotional, with Officer Jim and his daughter finally connecting with  each other despite tough circumstances surrounding them. It’s a  beautiful little story, and all of the pieces together make it so  surprising it won SXSW.

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Featured Image: Heartland

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