Sometimes you see a movie, and there’s an actor who you have never seen before who you think, “holy crap, where did that person come from?”. They give a performance that you love, and maybe it becomes the part that makes them a movie star, or maybe not. You know they came from somewhere, though. Maybe it was an indie film, a festival darling, or both.
Thunder Road is for Jim Cummings, the former of those two films. An indie film you should see now so that one day when he is a movie star, you can say, “I saw him when”.
Cummings plays police officer Jim Arnaud. In the opening scene, we learn that Jim’s mother has passed away, and he is nearly overcome with grief. Combined with the breakdown of his marriage sends him spiralling toward self-destruction. Life becomes overwhelming, and Jim, an overly verbose man, begins to react with more and more errancy. In almost every scene, life throws him another roadblock, and as the film progresses, he begins to lash out and reveal that he is losing a grip on his life that was maybe never very firm in the first place.
All the more impressive is that most of the important sequences in the film are shot in single takes. For example, the opening scene, in which Jim emotionally and awkwardly eulogizes his mother, is a full 13 minutes long. The range and complexity of emotions in this scenes and the others like it are something special to witness, bouncing around from sincerity to anger to despair moment to moment with a level of truth that would be difficult for any actor, but Cummings makes it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
These scenes wouldn’t have the power they do without the other actors present. In particular, Nican Robinson playing Jim’s partner and best friend Nate is particularly good as that friend who sticks around even when everyone else is pulling away, even after a major moment of betrayal. Everyone needs a friend that won’t give up on them, and Nate is that friend for Jim. Similarly, Macon Blair shows up in one scene as Jim’s daughter’s school teacher, a scene that requires more subtle reactions to Jim’s growing aberrancies, and his performance makes you think, “why isn’t this guy a more famous character actor?”
Thunder Road has already been cleaning up at festivals, including SXSW and the Seattle International Film Festival, but it isn’t a perfect film. I am sure that many will find it a challenging film to watch because of some of the places it goes, and in all honesty, there are parts of the resolution of the story that I didn’t really like. These points don’t detract from the tremendousness of Cummings performance, though, which is one you should really see. I hope that this movie finds some life beyond the festival circuit, but whether or not it does, it’s one you should see so that when Cummings is a big start one day, you’ll be able to say “you saw him when”.