AAt the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, Jim Cummings, a multitasking force of nature, unveiled a brilliantly excruciating short film about a grieving cop struggling to say goodbye to his mother at her funeral. Inspired by his mother’s love for dancing and Bruce Springsteen, hapless Cummings officer Jim Arnaud expresses his grief through movement and song. It’s a jaw-dropping slice of tragicomic desperation, a sight made all the more breathtaking by being captured in one ruthless 12-minute shot. “We have no idea who you are,” said Sundance judge Keegan-Michael Key presenting the grand jury award for short film to the “Cummings'” Real Discovery, “but this movie is like a Gesamtkunstwerk, a mini-masterpiece of writing, directing and acting.
Building on his success at Sundance, New Orleans-raised Cummings (who had actually worked in film for years, producing “stuff that didn’t really have an audience connection”) used Kickstarter to help finance a feature film version of Thunder road, which won a grand jury award at SXSW last year. Since then, this low-budget independent film (it was made for just $ 190,000, on a 15-day shoot) has won praise from festival audiences and critics alike, with Rolling stoneby David Fear citing stating: “I saw the future of humanistic American cinema, and his name is Jim Cummings.”
The feature film opens with a reimagined – and arguably even more painful – version of the short, a funeral curtain-raiser to a full-on twist festival filled with gallows humor that makes you wince. Once again, poor Jim is captured in horribly uncut footage, inadvertently occurring in front of his mother’s coffin. This time, however, the pink kid’s beatbox he brought in to play the Boss’s music simply refuses to play ball, leaving Jim silently tossing around in front of his audience of dumbfounded mourners, who don’t know what’s going on. you have to laugh, cry or shout. The audiences for the film feel pretty much the same.
After raising the bar impressively on his short film roots, Thunder road then faces the daunting task of stretching that hilariously scary character comedy tune over the course of a 90-minute film. That he does not quite succeed is hardly surprising. While a filmmaker like Jennifer Kent, for example, may have relied on her frightening experience Monster in the 2014 hit The Babadook, many truly striking short films have a natural rhythm that does not transfer easily to the feature film format. Notable, too, that Cummings cited OfficeSteve Coogan’s David Brent and Alan Partridge as influences on his character Arnaud, both of whom have appeared in feature films, but have significantly found their perfect support in episodic television series or streaming (a format in which Cummings also perfected his art).
What we have instead is a succession of variously successful vignettes, only some of which reach that sweet spot between horror and humor, as we watch Arnaud’s life crumble around him. At home, he struggles to connect with his young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), whose mother, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), is fucking him in a divorce proceeding. At work, his captain wants him to take some rest, clearly aware of his fragile mental state. Only his friend and colleague Nate (a very engaging turn from Nican Robinson) really has his back, but Arnaud’s point of view is so pathologically introverted that even acts of kindness meet with a passive-aggressive form of hostility from self-loathing.
A scene with Crystal’s teacher (the formidable Macon Blair) gets to the point – which Jim, who ends up threatening to trash the classroom, does it all about him. There is a creepy twist of 70s-era Paul Schrader in Cummings’ mention of a man on the edge, most notably when Arnaud rips off his uniform while cursing the police who he says have him. betrayed.
Sometimes the film itself suffers from a similar solipsism, although one would expect from a film “written, directed and performed by” its one-man-show-maker (Cummings also gets the music and assembly credits). Yet there are times when Thunder road is perilously close to embracing Arnaud’s injured worldview, especially regarding his marriage, which forms the most dubious (and awkwardly contrived) thread of the tale.
In its best moments, however, Thunder road evokes a feeling of pathos that approaches the depth. There is a real beauty in his evocation of an all too human awkwardness, embodied in Cummings’ grinning expression that seems to oscillate between a smile and a sob. We see him first at the funeral and then in the film’s final theatrical shot, capturing that blend of tragedy and comedy that so often turns out to be elusive. Cummings’ feature debut doesn’t always strike the right balance, but when it does, it packs a bittersweet punch.