Review of Thunder Road
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
A surprise hit at SXSW 2018; this film was expanded from the notable 2016 short created and performed by actor/director Jim Cummings. The short was a one-man show—13 minutes of monologue in one take. His character is Jimmy, a decorated police officer who is socially awkward (perhaps an understatement). Among festival viewers, there was speculation that the bizarre-but-poignant character’s rant at his mother’s funeral may not translate well into a feature-length story.
The full version begins with the same eulogy. The title of the film refers to the Bruce Springsteen song Jimmy brings on CD to the funeral—he had choreographed a dance, but the player will not work. At the premiere, Cummings seemed to imply that he could not actually get the rights to use the song in the film. In any case, the lyrics indeed provide some insight into this character. Impulsively, Jimmy goes ahead with the awkward performance much to the amusement or horror of the mourners.
Obviously, this is a character-driven film. Likened to a Don Quixote with a cheesy mustache, Jimmy is a man dedicated to his ideal of what a man should be. He is loyal, but without realizing it, he often hurts and offends those he loves. Attention deficient, Jimmy is quick-tempered at times, and then just as easily, he is quick to accept blame and forgives others who disrespect him.
Jimmy is a divorced dad, and he struggles to maintain a most tenuous relationship with the love of his life—his pre-teen daughter Chrystal (Kendal Farr). Even when you aren’t socially awkward, it is hard for a dad to navigate parenting of a girl at this age.
There is one brief side story one may easily miss. The moment becomes significant in the context of the character’s development. During one patrol, Jimmy comes across a 16-year old girl (Jacqueline Doke) having sex with two boys in a car. He dismisses the group but insists on taking the frustrated girl home. She hears Jimmy’s lecture on the way, rolling her eyes at the reprimand. Later in the story, Jimmy drives past her school, and the same girl is sitting outside. The camera provides a slowed close up of the girls face as the car passes. In her face, you do not find, not quite the same sneer of disrespect, but perhaps now a hint of admiration and wonder.
At first, the viewer might think that the gaze was returned by Jimmy—perhaps one of his quirks is a lust for teenaged bad girls. But this is not what Cummings as director/editor chose to confirm—I take the shot not to be a POV angle. Instead of a two-way exchange, one might take it that the girl alone has the gaze—and her expression is the purpose of the shot. Instead of branding him as a creep worthy of additional scorn, the moment allows one to respect Jimmy a little from his awkward-but-innocent attempt to care for the girl. The girl gets it—and I get it.
For the story to work in such a character-centered film, it is vital that viewers care about the hero. Apparently, the judges at SXSW agreed—it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for narrative features. Jimmy is an earnest man who crusades in a world that has grown weary of high ideals. Perhaps one may roll their eyes at what he finds true and trustworthy, but one can never suggest Jimmy’s character is bad. While Jimmy represents the kind of person we might easily brand Loser (with a capital L), Cummings succeeds in putting a little of our own quirks into the character. There but for the grace of God go I.
As portrayed, Jimmy is a heroic protagonist in an absurd fight against himself—he is his own worst enemy. Nevertheless, like us, Jimmy is worthy of empathy in spite of his shortcomings. We can hope for the best for this broken everyman—one who deserves our pathos, not our scorn.