A static camera slowly presses in.
It never moves – only zooms deliberately – for what feels like an eternity but is only six or seven minutes as the protagonist mourns the loss of his mother during a chaotic, frantic eulogy at her funeral.
Over the course of a brisk hour-and-a-half, writer/director/star Jim Cummings delivers a film equally as manic as the character he portrays on screen. It’s a mesmerizing, haunting tale of love, loss and the fleeting nature of time.
Winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival, “Thunder Road” is a striking and poignant piece of independent cinema that will leave audiences wondering how no one made them see it weeks ago.
Cummings’ film follows Jim, a rural Louisiana beat cop trying to do right by his daughter while grieving over his mother’s death and an impending divorce. His difficulties leave Jim unable to relate rationally and place him at an emotional distance from the surrounding world.
These awkward moments of irrational anxiety are given ample room to breathe as Cummings’ screenplay and direction expertly allow the gravity of emotions from Jim’s fracturing soul to bubble over the surface.
“Thunder Road” is a rare feature to bring urgency to the grieving process without feeling contrived or irreverent. Moments of frantic expression are mellowed by a cold sense of place, usually within the same monologue, for a refreshing take on the family drama.
As Jim, Cummings gives 2018’s most complete and complex acting performance in a turn that though dynamically manic never veers wildly off course.
Each choice Jim makes moment to moment (and often second to second) is so nuanced and specific that Cummings dances like a ballerina on the line between the tragically absurd and bittersweet beauty.
It’s a singular, transformative performance that often belies just how good Cummings is as a screenwriter and director. Viewers can’t help but keep their eyes glued to Jim even as everything around him tries to pull focus.
Characters hover around Jim in constant orbit as his emotional gravity pulls them in and repels them away. Kendal Farr as Jim’s daughter Crystal and Nican Robinson as his best friend and partner Nate are exceptional at reading these shifts and offering genuine, natural reactions within their characters.
Cummings takes bold chances cinematically in the director’s chair and in the editing room, giving “Thunder Road” an unique style of sequential vignettes rather than traditional narrative. These small jumps can be mildly jarring for the viewers, though their intent continues the overall manic tone of the film.
There’s a deep passion to the artistry that permeates throughout “Thunder Road,” but nowhere is it more apparent than in the emotional dichotomy of laughter and pain dripping across the pages of Cummings’ script.
These harsh contrasting tones wear on the sleeve of Cummings’ performance as Jim and seep into his direction of the cinematography, which is simultaneously intently close and observationally distant.
It’s a hallmark of high caliber independent cinema where the thought and intentionality of the filmmaker is clear and lived in.
Made for a mere $200,000, Cummings’ nuanced comedy/drama never gained theatrical traction in the United States despite the backing of the Sundance Film Institute and top prize at South by Southwest.
The film made back its money within a week of its theatrical release in France and has found a new home online with Amazon Prime, waiting with open arms for American audiences to find this bold Southern tale.
“Thunder Road” is the sort of film worth seeing five times at home on Amazon Prime before even considering watching any of the current releases major movie studios are pushing in theaters.
A true pinnacle of independent filmmaking achievement, “Thunder Road” clearly cements its status as one of the five best films to be released in 2018 and is an absolute must see film.