Thunder Road and the Unravelling of Self

Thunder Road. Image:variety.com

Bruce Springsteen once remarked before singing “Thunder Road” that he’s been singing the song for ten years, and at some point he began to wonder what happened to “all the people he put in those cars” Jim Cummings 2018 directorial debut, Thunder Road, is the brutally honest answer.

Jim Arnaud (Played by Jim Cummings) is “one of the good guys”, or at least he is trying desperately to be. As a cop whose world is crashing down around him it would be more accurate to say he’s just trying to keep it together. It’s a familiar story offset by an acknowledging that there is nothing glorious, or romantic about mental breakdowns or identity crisis. In doing so the film does its audience the courtesy of trusting our ability to process dire circumstance, while allowing us to laugh.

Officer Jim Arnaud is at least related to the characters of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. We could assume that Jim was not the classic hero Springsteen paints- the hero who drives out of town with nothing but a dream. Rather, Jim Arnaud is the guy that made it a mile past the state line, and stopped, too afraid the open road of the unknown would chew him up and spit him out. Rather than cop to this fear, he ties himself to self imposed duty allowing the hope of becoming any hero fade to myth. After all, “Thunder Road” is just a song.

Thunder Road spares us a preamble of exposition, and instead places us right at the center of crisis. Much like the song of which this film derives its namesake, within the first seconds we are invited into the world. I cannot recall an opening scene so brutal and resolute in its attempt to place the audience directly in line with the soul of the film.

We open with Officer Jim Arnaud sitting uncomfortably in the stark setting of a white washed church. He fidgets, slicks his hair back in panic and appears completely out of his element as he is about to eulogize his dead mother. What follows is the vision of a social nightmare. Imagine for a moment the anxiety of trying to deliver a speech which would beautifully immortalize your greatest love while simultaneously peeing your pants and throwing up between words in front of the queen of england, also you’re naked, and you’re pretty close to Thunder Roads’ opening scene. A moment which securely buckles us in for a visual wreck on the highway. Try as we might, we cannot look away because for every second we are cringing, Cummings follows up with a performances which pushes us to tears.

This movie is less about what brought Jim Arnaud to such a breakdown, but an examination of the breakdown itself. He is a character who never afforded himself permission to accept his own humanity. To Arnaud’s mind that sort of self reflection wouldn’t be appropriate. It could only cause heart ache. It wouldn’t be appropriate to complain, to argue, to grieve. That would mean inserting yourself back into reality; a reality which was certain to bite back. Instead he over compensates by being painfully polite, and optimistic to a drastic fault.

For Officer Jim Arnaud it is easier to soldier on, accepting the best in people and hoping the world does the same for him. That way he can keep his head down and continue to avoid the hard work of self actualization. Despite this, he grounds himself in every small blessing afforded to him, as if those blessings would be enough to sustain his fragile foundation. But he cannot secure himself to the future without laying to rest the ghosts of his past. The result is self deception, which acts as a poor barrier against inner turmoil. All of his heartache and trauma devolve into unspoken resentment towards himself. He holds that resentment in until it turns into a hurricane causing the entire structure to collapse- until he is completely spent of trying so hard to appear acceptable, and he is forced to give up his ghosts.

In his portrayal of the character, Cummings projects for the audience a performance which feels dangerously close to home. We cringe with embarrassment when our protagonists countlessly misjudges a room for the sake of sincerity. When we laugh during this film, we are laughing in order to barricade ourselves from the unbearable truth being projected on the screen- the idea that the world could see our brokenness is terrifying.

We have our own internal concept of self which we try desperately to project onto the world, and ultimately fail time and time again. When we realize we are not the heroes and saints we dreamed to be, we are left to question and second guess ourselves. In a culture which sees strength in certainty it becomes a dangerously vulnerable act to reevaluate our identities. But such a dangerously vulnerable act is necessary for survival. In the case of Officer Jim Arnaud bravery took the form of deconstructing a lie as simple as ‘boys don’t cry’. Only after this deconstruction could our protagonist believe himself to be a true hero, brave enough to live out the promise offered in the lyrics of Springsteen’s song.

In the end, what resonates about Thunder Road is it’s incomparable honesty coupled with its earnest plea for human decency. Despite Officer Jim Arnaud’s shortcomings, it’s clear that he is, above all else, a good man. Regardless of his brokenness, he sincerely wishes to positively affect the world around him. Therefore I feel obligated to impress upon the reader that the review above is unintentionally biased. As long as we’re being honest, and hopelessly sincere, I admit that Jim Cumming’s film struck a nerve. I reached a point in my second viewing of the film when I wondered if the film was projected towards me, or I was projecting into the film. That is the purpose of great cinema- to hold up a mirror and cause the audience to see themselves as they are; and furthermore for the audience to begin to reconstruct the fragments of things long thought lost.

In summation,

For those utterly unable to communicate how trapped, worn down, or anxious they may feel; and yet strive for resilience- this movie is for you.

For those who feel it necessary to act as if they were John Wayne, but are not quite pulling it off- this movie is for you.

For anyone who dares to dream to leave a broken town and pull out to win, but are too afraid to move their feet- this movie is for you.

It is a film that dares the audience to dance, and to realize that those we hold most dear are also those which give us a reason to dance.