There is no pain like losing a person you love. The grief that follows death is impossible to describe, in part because it is unique to everyone who feels it. What may cause some people to break down daily may hit others all at once. Some try to run from the pain, but anyone who has felt the weight of losing a loved one will tell you such efforts never go as planned. The pain of loss is inevitable. The best any of us can hope to do is survive it, and even then, no one is ever the same.
Thunder Road, the passion project of writer/Director/star Jim Cummings, understands the impossible to describe the nature of grief. More importantly, it wallows in the uncertainty of surviving such pain rather than writing it off as a passing moment. The film follows Cummings as Officer Jim Arnaud, a man whose mother has recently passed away. He is the only one of her children to show at the funeral, which is where the movie opens. Jim wants to look strong, but as he begins to talk about the complicated nature of mother-child relationships, you can sense he’s coming undone. That is made all the more evident when he attempts to perform a choreographed routine to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” his late mom’s favorite song, without the music. Whether the above description makes you laugh or cringe will likely determine how you will feel about the roughly eighty-minutes that follows the film’s opening sequence. Officer Arnaud is a man on the cusp of a complete emotional breakdown, and that fact is seemingly clear to everyone except Arnaud himself. In addition to coping with the loss of his mother, he’s also facing a divorce from his ex-wife and a strained relationship with his young daughter. His entire is on fire, and he has no idea how to cope, so instead, he chooses to try and push on as though nothing were wrong. It doesn’t work. It never works out.
Thunder Road is built around Cummings’ performance. From scene to scene, awkward encounter to awkward encounter, viewers watch as Cummings’ character does his best to fight off his feelings. When he fails, which is often the case, the results are a mix of tears and profane outbursts that are unlike anything one might expect from an otherwise mild-manner small town police officer. By attempting to run from everything the emotions he’s avoiding comes crashing down on him all at once. His frustration over his soured relationship impacts his ability to reach his daughter, which makes him feel like he’s letting down his deceased mother, and his longing to feel that paternal connection makes him wish things were better with the two women still in his life.
The beauty of Thunder Road lies In its unabashed depiction of grief. Death can make us feel like our world has come to a screeching halt, but as the narrative explains, that is never actually true. Life keeps chugging along, like a train without a conductor, and we have to do our best to cope while dealing with whatever else comes our way. It’s enough to drive any sane person to the brink of a meltdown but rarely has a film dared to explore such truths in a manner similar to what Cummings has delivered with his debut feature. Like a car crash or house fire, you know you should look away, but your eyes remain fixed. Through Arnaud’s pain, we see ourselves as we are, scared creatures clinging to whatever shred of hope we can find when our worlds begin to crumble. It isn’t always pretty, and it sure as hell isn’t calm, but it’s honest.
Some will no doubt be disappointed in Thunder Road‘s resolution, as it’s nothing grand or even remotely practical, but again, it’s not far from the reality of similar situations. Life happens, we adapt, then the cycle begins again. There is no permanent cure, only temporary fixes that allow us to pick up the pieces and move forward until they shatter further still. As so many philosopher and storytellers have claimed, life is suffering, but if you accept that fact, life can be pretty damn funny as well.