Austin, Texas is a center for humanist, independent cinema. It is also my hometown. If you grow up in such a market and see the kinds of success that comes from Austin, a general idea of what defines good cinema is implanted in your psyche. Idols like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, or even those unrelated to film but profound in their cultural impact, Louis Black or Stevie Ray Vaughn, define this for you. They might not have been born here, but they came and loved Austin and Austin loved them right back. The types that stick around are the ones that love people. There’s never a motive above getting to know somebody because that’s interesting enough. You can hear it in the music, you can taste it in the food, and you can see it in the movies. Thunder Road fits perfectly in the indie films that Austin loves. Equal parts heart-wrenching and gut-busting, this film is not only a must see, but easily my top movie of this year so far.
To reveal much of the plot would be revealing nearly all of the plot. It is semi-plotless, in the vein of Dazed and Confused or Crash. Things happen, for sure, but not with the cohesiveness and material drive blockbusters aim for. This is a character study first and foremost. You follow Officer James Arnaud following the death of his mother. Most of the drama centers around Officer Arnaud’s relationship to his daughter as his wife and him have separated the year previous. Jim Cummings, director, writer, editor, lead actor, and producer, gives relief from all of the cathartic monologues about family and insecurity with bits and pieces of quirk and humor. Little references to Arnaud’s attendance of LSU (Go Tigers) to comments on the prices of above ground pools, out of context, sound bizarre, but within the writing are so naturally incorporated that you barely notice you were crying the second before.
Jim Cummings delivers a monologue with pathos and comedic timing. It’s a masterclass of comedic acting. He carries the movie, as well as the previous short film of the same name. Every member of the supporting cast is excellent as well. His daughter, Crystal, is played with fantastic sass by Kendall Farr. Her chemistry with Jim Cummings is immediately noticeable. The sympathy the film builds for Officer Arnaud makes that relationship paramount and every moment that tests it is deeply felt by the audience, in large part because of Farr’s performance. The other relationship important to Officer Arnaud is that with his partner, Officer Nate Lewis. Nican Robinson is completely believable in portraying the sometimes difficult task of being there for a friend. The interactions between these three have that same sympathy and humor that Jim Cummings shows in his monologue.
The filmmaking studies the character of Officer Arnaud is a fascinating way. The use of long, uninterrupted takes lets you take in all of the imperfect parts of human expression. Every dramatic and profound speech is rudely interrupted by a more human element in the story and editing. The direction also keeps you on Officer Arnaud’s side, but isn’t afraid to show you his less appealing moments. The combination of powerful performance and filmmaking create a wonderful and human look at Officer Arnaud. Without this deeply personal view, the movie and the character would be flat and boring.
Go see this movie. It’s out in fairly limited release. Go find the one theater in your city that is showing it and watch it. Joining the audience audibly crying one second and laughing the next is an experience I’ll never forget. The only bad thing about this movie is that it may have set the bar too high. There’s a whole awards season full of films that have to compare to it. I’m sure at least one will make me as excited about filmmaking as Thunder Road. It’s an impressive movie in every aspect. I can’t recommend it enough.