“I’m a hipster, not a cop,” says the writer, director and star of Thunder Road Jim Cummings, during a Q & A at the retro-cool Ritzy cinema in Brixton*. Thunder Road’s protagonist, Officer Jim Arnaud, was originally meant to be played by a muscle-bound All-American soap actor. Cummings eventually took on the role himself, admitting that he found the character to be too humourless the way it was currently being portrayed. “There is something funny about masculine vulnerability”, mentions Cummings, and we see this interpreted throughout the film as a series of public meltdowns*.
The film begins with a single shot lasting 12 minutes (this also makes up the entirety of the short film by the same name that earnt Cummings much acclaim at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival). In the shot, we observe Jim’s first public meltdown, a eulogy of sorts, at his mother’s funeral. His musical tribute to his mother (a rendition of her favourite song, Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen) evolves into a monologue with both hilarious and heartbreaking consequences. Centre screen, Jim stands before his mother’s casket, a grieving son who admits, “Mom didn’t believe in any of this” before the service begins. Even at this point, Jim wonders if he’s doing right by his mum. Perhaps this is why Jim is still in uniform, complete with a moustache like one of those classic TV cops of the ’70s, because he’d rather be seen as a mournful cop than a mournful son.
Ultimately, Thunder Road is about a son, a father and a policeman unable to express his pain. Jim’s life is falling apart, as we see him balance a bitter divorce from his wife with a custody battle for his daughter, whom he struggles to relate with. Not only this but his increasingly erratic behaviour has put his job at risk and alienated his friends and colleagues.
Jim leaps from one abrasive rant to the next as the walls begin to close in on him. He is a Policeman who needs a helping hand, and this allows the chaos around him to be momentarily interrupted by supporting characters with good intentions, especially his friend and fellow officer Nate (Nican Robinson).
Cummings is a self-proclaimed Pixar fan and there are parallels to be drawn here, not least Jim’s Peter Pan complex catching up with him as the film progresses*. Much like the movie Inside Out, we see many emotions on display. However, for all his anger, sadness and fear, it’s the moments of joy that stand out in this film, especially when he connects with his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) in one, particularly joyous scene.
During the Q&A, Cummings cited his British comedic influences, chiefly Alan Partridge and David Brent, two characters with a comedic facade who are often overwhelmed and unable to articulate themselves properly*. Jim’s character is similar in this regard; you get the sense when Jim has his uniform on, he truly believes it’s Cops against Robbers, whether that be when he’s out on patrol, fighting for custody of his daughter, or mourning his mother at her funeral.
There is something fearless about independent cinema. Thunder Road is a character-study that demands the audience’s attention. It’s raw, risky and incredibly heartfelt, everything a mainstream Hollywood movie isn’t. The fact this movie was made with the help of a Kickstarter campaign on a budget of less than £200,000 is celebration enough*. The end product, however, is as good as any movie you will see in 2019.
Thunder Road opens in UK cinemas May 31st 2019
*Cummings, J. (20/05/19). Thunder Road + Q&A with Dir Jim Cummings. Brixton, London: The Ritzy.