The opening scene of “Thunder Road” is a doozy. Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings), a Texas cop in his early 30s with a handsome face and a tragicomic pornstache, is delivering his mother’s eulogy when he suffers an emotional meltdown. Not the kind you might expect to happen at a funeral, but something altogether sadder, weirder and more surprising.
As he describes the depths of his mother’s love and recalls his shortcomings as a son, Jim begins to ramble, peppering his speech with bizarre declarations (“I’m a dyslexic.”) and muttered apologies. His voice quakes and cracks. His face clenches and twists, landing somewhere between a rictus grin and a serious ugly cry. And that’s all before his horribly awkward attempt to dance to his mom’s favorite Bruce Springsteen song, the one that gives this savage, soulful movie its title.
Cummings, the movie’s frighteningly gifted writer, director and star, makes it impossible to turn away from this spectacle, no matter how much you may want to. For 12 unblinking minutes, Cummings the filmmaker lets the camera slowly zoom in, giving Cummings the actor no room to breathe or escape. His performance, for all its bizarre non sequiturs, has an equally bizarre emotional logic. You are watching a man with a short fuse, a big mouth and a wretched lack of self-awareness reckon with a life devastated by loss, not for the first or last time.
I’ll try and move on to the rest of the movie now, but it’s not easy. An entire piece could be devoted to that opening scene alone, which sets a high standard for the rest of “Thunder Road” to meet. This was true even before the movie was completed: An early version of that scene was produced as a stand-alone short that won an award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Now, Cummings has expanded Jim Arnaud’s story into a 92-minute feature, which premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, this year and ended up taking the grand jury prize. (Full disclosure: I served on the jury behind that decision.)
The result is the work of a fully formed and startlingly confident new voice in independent American filmmaking. Much like its first chapter, this “Thunder Road” fluctuates wildly — yet with exquisite control — between cringe-tastic comedy and unshakable grief. It seems to invite a similarly wide range of reactions from the viewer as it both indulges, and implicitly critiques, a spectacle of white male self-pity.
Make that authoritarian white male self-pity. Much of the new material shows Jim out on patrol with his partner and best friend, Nate (Nican Robinson), where a series of mishaps suggest he may have returned to work too soon after his mother’s death. In truth, his problems began much earlier: He’s going through a messy divorce with his wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), and fighting for custody of their young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr).
Crystal has become emotionally distant at home — and troublingly disruptive at school, as Jim learns from her fourth-grade teacher (Macon Blair), in one of many one-on-one interactions here that quickly head south. There’s a rare joyous moment when Jim manages to reach across the chasm and bond with Crystal in a way that surprises and impresses them both. But it also provides a clue as to the kind of guy he is: someone who likes to meet a challenge head-on, pummeling it into submission if need be. Most of the time, the effort leaves him flailing.
As with the short, many of the sequences in “Thunder Road” feel as if they might have originated as comic sketches — barbed, brutal dispatches from the farce of one man’s life. The editing, by Brian Vannucci, is spare and precise; the cinematographer, Lowell A. Meyer, keeps the camera trained on Cummings for what feels like minutes at a time. The elongation of individual shots builds tension beautifully inside the frame — an ideal choice for Jim, who never blows his top right away but works himself up gradually to each new tantrum.
Remarkably, Cummings manages to piece these oddball vignettes into a vivid drama with its own unpredictable, startlingly lovely shape. The ironies of Jim’s story come together so swiftly that they might not register until afterward: Here is a man of the law, who prides himself on order, discipline and respect, falling often hideously short of that standard. Here too is a man who seems on the verge of losing everything — only to suddenly gain something back under dark and puzzling circumstances.
I myself wish the movie had found a different, less jarring resolution for that particular story, though the one it arrives at is provocative all the same. Jim so completely dominates the camera’s gaze that you are suddenly reminded, startlingly, that his life has been shaped almost entirely by his relationships with women: his mother, his daughter, his soon-to-be-ex-wife and even his sister (Chelsea Edmundson), who lives some distance away with a family of her own. He visits her at one point, and their brief reunion provides a subtle hint as to how he might have ended up in this predicament.
Jim’s cluelessness, a quality that makes him both lovable and maddening, is also a form of privilege — a privilege that the movie spends 90 minutes painfully stripping away. He could, on one hand, be the latest stand-in for the death of the American dream in an economically blighted heartland, one of those aggrieved white working-class souls profiled en masse by journalists in wake of the 2016 election.
It’s doubtful, though, that even the most colorful reportage could be as boldly and fearlessly conceived as “Thunder Road,” whose greatest asset is its ability to confound expectations at every turn. Cummings’ achievement is too singular to be reduced to a simple political reading; and in much the same way, Jim’s hard-won final scene is too ambiguous to be read as either celebration or damnation. If, by that point, there’s even any meaningful difference.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena