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Thunder Road: Jim Cummings' cringe-fest is curiously touching

A Sundance-winning short film, expanded to feature length, veers between bathos and discomfort.

The rules about what not to do at a funeral are obvious, if unspoken. Don’t laugh, play with Lego, fiddle with your phone, or impugn the good character of the deceased. And absolutely don’t dance. And yet, in the opening 12-minute shot of the indie tragicomedy Thunder Road, dancing is exactly what happens: Jim Arnaud, a Texas cop, rambles and cries, fumbles with a pink cassette player and writhes to the imaginary strains of the titular Bruce Springsteen song – all in front of his mother’s coffin. This is clearly a broken man, and we’re deep in cringe territory.

Arnaud is played by Jim Cummings, who also wrote, directed and edited the film, and made the Sundance Jury Prize-winning short of the same name. He’s clearly drawn to the character above all, though. Dyslexic, on leave from the police force, on the brink of divorce, he sports an unfortunate moustache that smears his otherwise handsome features, and when he tears up, which he does often, his face contorts into an ugly strain.

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Arnaud is also saddled with an inability to ever say or do the right thing despite the best of intentions: after arguing with his black police partner, he apologises by saying, “I’m sorry if I committed a hate crime against you.”

Which is funny. Yet it’s the kind of funny that veers over the delicate line between bathos and discomfort. The whole film is like that, one long series of ever-escalating self-made catastrophes, until Arnaud, clad only in his underwear, is hollering in a carpark. “I don’t think I’m handling this thing all that great,” he admits. And he’d be right.

It’s these good intentions that rescue Thunder Road from becoming a total farce, and Arnaud from being an unsympathetic rube. Cummings has fashioned a curiously touching portrait of someone assailed by grief, confusion and haplessness. The film is strange and uncomfortable, but in the end, quite lovable, too.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.