It's difficult to acknowledge grief when you are in the midst of overwhelming pain. While everyone offers you apologies and condolences, while offering platitudes and statements masquerading as hope, it's difficult to push through the overwhelming darkness that usurps your life when someone you love passes away. The silver lining, of course, is that we talk about grief more in our current year than we have ever before, and every year that passes we get better at talking about it, about seeking help when we need it, and about understanding it.
What's not talked about, though, is how men react to this grief. It ranges from explosive outbursts of tears to years of bottled up sadness, both of which make their mark on the world in some form or another. That's part of what is so spectacular about Jim Cummings performance, and about Thunder Roadin general. It's not just the story of a guy grieving the loss of his mother. Rather, it's a poignant exploration of a man coming to terms with the fact that he can't control everything and learning that it's okay to feel.
The opening scene perhaps best exemplifies this paradigm. Officer Jim Arnaud, while eulogizing his mother, drastically switches between emotional and stone faced. He apologizes profusely every time he has an emotional moment, and he feels ashamed after leaving the funeral despite offering a genuine, heart-wrenching dance which resembles his connection to his mother. This moment is transplanted from Cummings's award-winning short film of the same name (though there is a one big difference between the two scenes), but the remainder of the film allows us to explore Jim as a character in a much deeper, more profound way than the short film ever could. What was melancholic grief in the short film -- as we see a heartbreaking, yet endearing display of affection for his mother -- turns into a difficult, yet sympathetic character study of a man who struggles to allow himself to feel emotion.
Part of this can be inferred from his role as a police officer (a decorated one at that). Scenes of Jim on cases intersperse the family drama that makes up the majority of the film. I don't think it was a coincidence that Cummings chose a police officer, of all occupations, for Jim to be, either. When Jim is on a case he is methodical, easy-to-anger, and sometimes violent. His repressed sadness comes up in fiery waves, no matter if it's in response to a man throwing a drink at him, or a teacher discussing his daughter's academic performance. What's remarkable, though, is how Cummings manages to make Jim sympathetic even in light of these outbursts and these tendencies. It would be easy for a character like Jim to be unlikable. However, Cummings manages to ground Jim's emotional instabilities in a genuine affection for his daughter and his mother.
There's a reason I keep mentioning Jim Cummings, too. Not only was he the writer, director, and star of this film, he is also the lifeblood of it. The supporting cast is very good (especially his close friend, Officer Nate Lewis), but Cummings's deft direction and powerful performance are what help set this apart from other family dramas. Whether due to his distinct mustache, his manner of speaking, or his general demeanor, Cummings has managed to Jim Arnaud not just a good character, but a memorable one. Even more important, the film surrounding Arnaud is taut, emotional, and offers brief glimpses of dark humor.
It saddens me that Jim Cummings and Thunder Road won't be seen among the Oscar nominees announced this year, nor will it win the mainstream discussion it deserves. Yet, its independent nature (made on a budget of just $200,000) helps make it more accessible to young filmmakers and cinephiles. Cummings has clearly made a film he is passionate about, along with creating a story that is steeped in emotional turmoil and genuine brilliance. It's the kind of film I need when I hit a creative nadir; it's the kind of film any viewer can watch and connect with. The ubiquity of its accessibility is one of its many charms, and I cannot implore you enough to go see it as soon as you can.
“THUNDER ROAD” ★★★★★
written and directed by JIM CUMMINGS
Released on October 30, 2018 || Not Rated || 92 MIN