Thunder Road (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A police officer with issues

“Thunder Road” is a small character comedy drama film which draws your interest right from its opening scene, which is the best part of the movie in my inconsequential opinion. Although the rest of the movie is less memorable in comparison, it constantly provides enough amusement via a series of humorous moments to admire, and that is more than enough for forgiving its few glaring flaws including an abrupt narrative turn around its ending.

Jim Cummings, who is also the director/writer of the film, plays Jim Arnaud, a police officer who has been going through a very difficult time in his life. While he and his wife are about to take the final step of their divorce, his mother recently died, and, though he and his mother did not get along well with each other, he is quite devastated by her death. During the opening scene, he tries to hold himself while delivering a heartfelt eulogy at his mother’s funeral, but he only finds himself having a nervous breakdown in the middle of his eulogy, and we get a painfully funny moment as he is helplessly rambling in front of others including his ex-wife and his dear young daughter.

After the funeral, Jim seems to feel a little better as getting help and support from his partner, but he still has lots of emotional issues inside him, and that is exemplified well by when he and his partner try to handle a disturbed homeless guy. When that homeless guy does something quite unpleasant, Jim overreacts to this action while his colleagues are watching him, and he is subsequently ordered to take some rest by his boss.

Although he has not been particularly close to his daughter, Jim wants to spend more time with her, and there is a small nice moment between him and his daughter when he takes her to her school in one morning. When he sees that she puts lots of makeup on her face just because she does not feel pretty, he tries to tell her that she looks pretty and all right to him even without makeup, but he only comes to make her feel unhappier than before. When he meets her school teacher later in the story, he is informed that his daughter has a serious problem in her class, and we get another funny moment in the film as he tries to process this matter.

As his ex-wife wants the full custody of their daughter, Jim decides to take their matter to the court, but, not so surprisingly, things do not go well for him again. As instructed by his lawyer, Jim tries to present himself well in front of the judge presiding over his custody case, but then he happens to say an inappropriate thing to the judge, and that certainly makes a bad impression on the judge.

After getting quite embarrassed by a certain evidence presented by his ex-wife’s lawyer, Jim comes to have another nervous breakdown, which leads to an uproarious moment simultaneously absurd and intense. As the camera steadily hangs around Jim and other characters, the movie deftly dials up and down its comic intensity, and Cummings is simply terrific without showing any self-conscious gesture.

Under Cummings’ competent direction, the movie later cools itself as well as its hero. There is a warm scene where Jim and his partner come to have a little cheerful time together not long after their strife, and there is also a surprisingly reflective scene where Jim and his sister talk a bit about their mother, who turns out to have a small personal secret behind her back.

And then there comes a totally unexpected moment which feels rather jarring compared to the overall tone of the film. While this sudden narrative turn does not work as well as intended, it leads to a sincere and honest conversation between Jim and his daughter at least, and that moment is followed by a fitting finale to be savored.

“Thunder Road” was developed from Cummings’ 2016 short film of the same name, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and also garnered the Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film festival. When the movie was shown at the SXSW Film Festival early in this year, it received lots of praises along with the Grand Jury Award, and it drew more attention when it was subsequently released in US this October. Although he only made a few short films before making his first feature film, Cummings shows here that he is a good filmmaker who knows how to interest and engage us, and he also demonstrates his considerable comic talent on the screen. While we often cringe or laugh whenever Jim embarrasses himself, we come to care about this flawed but decent guy nonetheless, and that is the main reason why the quieter moments in the film work on the emotional level. In case of the other performers around Cummings, they are solid on the whole, and the special mention goes to Nican Robinson, who holds his own small place well as Jim’s no-nonsense partner.

When I watched “Thunder Road” two days ago, it merely amused me at first, and I thought it was just your average whimsical American independent comedy film, but then it grew on me as I came to see more of how effortlessly it delivers humor and pathos without looking down on its problematic hero. In short, this is another notable debut film of this year, and it will be interesting to see what will come next from Cummings.

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