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BFI London Film Festival 2018 Review: Thunder Road – “An outstanding feature debut”

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There are plenty of reasons why Thunder Road is an outstanding feature debut – from its virtuoso one-take opening sequence to its gut-punch of a climax that hits you like a ton of bricks – yet it all traces back to the power-house performance of its lead star, who also happens to be the film’s writer/director. Jim Cummings simply knocks it out of the park and wins you over with one of the most raw and honest turns by an actor on film this year. The fact he’s the mastermind behind it all only adds to the promise of a truly original new voice in American independent cinema.

In a market that’s oversaturated with all sorts of content across an ever-growing offer of platforms to choose from, it’s a rarity to bump into such a genuine standout talent but Cummings’ work is no fluke. Thunder Road was developed from his 2016 Sundance-winning short film of the same name and actually, the brilliant opening sequence, which pulls the audience in and doesn’t let go of them for a second, is indeed a reworked version of the short, apparently with one major change, which obviously beckons viewing as soon as possible.

The opener isn’t just masterful from the technical/directorial perspective of being a crafty prolonged one-shot monologue. It is grandiose from the narrative standpoint of efficiently introducing our colourful protagonist – officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) – and perfectly setting the tragicomic tone that defines the piece throughout its running time. Arnaud is delivering the eulogy at his mother’s funeral but nothing goes according to plan and he lets his emotions take over, interrupting his speech on multiple occasions with ugly-cry faces and subsequent apologies. And then, when it’s time to play his late mother’s favourite song, Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, his daughter boombox doesn’t work and he winds up performing a dance routine he had prepared for it without any music playing.

If that sounds grotesquely hilarious you’re getting a sense of what Cummings is going for here, and needless to say, the rest of the film follows suit with another major melt-down set-piece where Cummings takes it all to the next level by tackling the film’s heaviest themes. This is the story of a broken man who has just lost his mother and whose world is crumbling down as he’s going through a divorce that could leave him without joint custody of his pre-teen daughter Crystal (adorable newcomer Kendal Farr) and whose psycho-emotional instability threatens to jeopardise his police career.

However, forget about any typical scenario that the dramatic side of the film’s premise would lead to in your mind because Cummings works hard to defy our expectations at every turn and he undoubtedly succeeds at that, even when it may seem like the story is meandering a bit. It’s in the small moments that Cummings’ nuanced writing earns him the right to go over the top during his character’s most outlandish scenes. For instance, the clever way he reveals how Arnaud has managed for a brief moment to win his daughter over, after struggling to connect with her when the child spends the night at his place, is one of the most heart-melting yet hilarious moments you’ll see at the movies this year.

Comedy is one of the hardest things to pull off but the kind of black comedy Cummings goes after in his feature debut is an even tougher beast to tame. Yet it’s impossible to deny he achieves the arduous task of finding the tragicomic balance the material requires whilst touching upon delicate issues like toxic masculinity, addiction, mental health, the hardships of parenthood and the pitfalls of the far-from-perfect American societal system. Thunder Road is an ambitious hell-of-a-debut and Cummings deserves praise if only for trying such a titanic enterprise for his first film. The fact he actually excels at it demands celebration and makes us incredibly excited for whatever he does next.

Thunder Road screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 12th and 20th

Check out our London Film Festival coverage

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