In what’s supposedly been a recurring problem with the pre-Festival screenings taking place at the BFI Southbank this year, thanks to construction work going on around the building, I arrived at my screening of Thunder Road just barely before it got closed off due to capacity. That may sound like a surprise to those of you reading these articles, this film that most of you probably hadn’t heard of before now and screening prior to the Festival having its demand exceed capacity, but those in the know such as myself actually had this down as one of the most anticipated of the Festival. See, Thunder Road is the feature-length expansion (and feature-length directorial debut) of writer and star Jim Cummings’ brilliant 2016 short film of the same name and, I am very pleased to report, that’s a transition both the premise and the talent have managed to execute mostly smooth as butter.
For those who haven’t seen it, and I really do recommend that you take 13 minutes out of your day to watch (trust me on this), the Thunder Road short involves Cummings’ Officer Arnaud giving a rambling, hyper-emotional, and borderline-violent eulogy at the funeral of his mother, a respected dancer who loved Springsteen and whom Arnaud fears he was ungrateful towards and disappointed whilst she was alive. It’s a pitch-perfect piece of tragicomedy delivered in sputtering monologue and one excruciating take that refuses to give the viewer an out, and Cummings wisely lifts it pretty much wholesale for the opening to his feature-expansion. Thunder Road the feature then follows the weeks after Arnaud’s bewildering breakdown at the funeral as this angry, put-upon, and altogether pathetic man starts self-destructing with great prejudice as a result of his grief, an impending divorce from his contentious ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) and accompanying custody battle over their resentful daughter (Kendall Farr), and problems at work with his partner Officer Lewis (Nican Robinson) amongst so many others.
You might think that you’re supposed to sympathise with Arnaud, therefore, as his life completely falls apart at the seams despite his attempts to do better and resultantly feel uneasy with the idea of doing so given real-world circumstances in this year of ours 2018. But whilst Cummings does occasionally provide Arnaud with notes of sympathy and the hint of redemption, Arnaud is primarily a character designed to alternately laugh at and be horrified by. He is the kind of loser that doubles as life’s chew-toy, but he also brings a lot of his problems on himself by being alternately an “aw, shucks” down-home imbecile of the highest degree and a vindictive asshole with the capacity to dive right over the line of acceptability in a blind rage without even being aware of it. This is a man who treats his dyslexia like a cancer diagnosis and whose response to being told that his daughter may also have a mild form of it is to start blaming himself before screaming at the elementary school teacher who broke the news to him, his daughter’s table in hand ready to chuck at the guy’s head.
Arnaud was a fascinating character in the original short and fortunately becomes even more so when we’re forced to spend even longer in his company – the film is firmly from his point-of-view, even if Thunder Road isn’t exactly sympathetic to Arnaud’s many plights, which does mean that the remainder of the cast are comparatively thin in characterisation and have to lean more on their performers to carry them through. Cummings has a hand in damn-near every facet of Thunder Road (*insert played-out Little Britain Dennis Waterman joke here*) but whilst his direction is confident and only occasionally showy, and his screenplay is a tonal masterclass, this is primarily a showcase for his acting talents and he turns in what may be my favourite performance of the entire year. He makes Arnaud so abjectly pathetic yet also low-key vile in a compulsively entertaining way that, whilst you’d never want to meet the man in real-life, remaining in his presence for 90 minutes is compulsive. The ability to watch such a uniquely drawn character keep sinking to new depths in such an accomplished character piece never becoming tiring. I am extremely excited for whatever Cummings’ next move may be, because his is a voice bursting with further potential going forward.