Thunder Road

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Thunder Road
"For all his character's vacillations, this is a masterclass in filmmaking control." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

The script of writer/director Jim Cummings' debut feature treads such a fine line between comedy and tragedy that it's no wonder he also decided to take on the lead role of Jim Arnaud, a police officer who is teetering on the slippery brink of a nervous breakdown. "Anyhoo," as Arnaud would say, if you want something doing right, you should probably do it yourself. And Cummings most certainly does it right.

From the beginning, Cummings gives his character, and us, a full emotional workout. His gloriously uncomfortable and surprisingly moving opening sequence at Arnaud's mother's funeral sees the camera gradually zoom in on Arnaud as he tries (and largely fails) to hold it together while delivering a by turns heart-rending and blackly comic eulogy to her, which happens to include a spot of Bruce Springsteen interpretive dance. Arnaud can't stop talking and, from that point on, we can't stop watching. This audacious opening is a variation on Cummings' award-winning short of the same name and the sort of comedy of unease perhaps more familiar to British audiences raised on a diet of flawed sitcom characters, like Rupert Rigsby, Basil Fawlty and David Brent, than American ones. Familiar or not, Cummings uses Arnaud's anxiety, compelling and repellent, sometimes almost simultaneously, to grip us to his plight.

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Away from the church, Arnaud's nerves are shot, he's trying to hold it together to save face with his cop partner Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson), while also attempting to navigate a deepening row over custody of his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) with her mother Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer) and settle his mother's estate. In short, life is scattered and he is earnestly trying to do his best, but his emotions are starting to break free at odd angles, like popcorn kernels in a hot pan. This periodically, and unpredictably, leads him to visibly lose control; sometimes it's just his face that breaks into a rictus grin reminiscent of Munch's The Scream, at others his inability to cope emerges as violence, this latter tendency shocking every time it occurs, not least because we know at heart he's not a bad guy.

And therein lies the excellence of Cummings' writing and portrayal - for all his character's vacillations, this is a masterclass in filmmaking control. He wants us to join Arnaud in his anxiety, to feel the cage of the 'man's man' attitude he's been taught to cultivate his whole life, and empathise as he tries to articulate and verbalise feelings he never has before, as unsure of his potential for volatility and how to handle it as we are. The writer/director/performer revels in the juxtaposition of joy and despair, whether it's the sheer exhilaration Arnaud experiences on finally connecting with his daughter through a game, or the sudden turn things take with Crystal's teacher (Macon Blair in a small but distinctive role). This isn't just a character study it's a full anatomy lesson, we watch as Cumming makes Arnaud fall apart, desperately hoping he'll put him back together again.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2019
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The life of an emotionally unstable cop begins to unravel when his mum dies.
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