'Thunder Road': Film Review | SXSW 2018

A singular balancing act between grief and anxious comedy.

Jim Cummings builds a feature out of his attention-grabbing 2016 short of the same name.

When it played the festival circuit in 2016 (winning Jury prizes at Sundance and practically everywhere else), Jim Cummings' 13-minute short Thunder Road was hard to forget — a deeply strange, yet funny, knot of grief and apology built around a heartbreakingly awkward dance-and-lip-sync performance of Bruce Springsteen's song. Conceived as one continuous shot among mourners at a funeral, it was perfectly complete despite raising many questions about the lives lived outside that room — especially the life of the policeman (Cummings) delivering that lip-sync tribute to his dead mother.

Back now with a weird and moving feature adaptation, Cummings follows that cop out into the rest of his life, where this is not the only kind of loss he's trying, unsuccessfully, to cope with. Driven by Cummings' transfixingly vulnerable performance, the movie not only justifies returning to the source: Shockingly, it does so without even using the device that seemed key to the short's success.

As in the short, we meet Cummings' Officer Jim Arnaud as he prepares to address mourners at his mother's funeral. He's holding a child's pink jambox, hoping to play a song she loved after saying a few words. But things aren't going smoothly, and when he can't get the song to play, he mimes the dance he has prepared while seeming to hear the tune in his head. He's even more adrift than he was in the earlier film (where the song did play), but his sudden recoveries amid the humiliation — "anyhoo," he singsongs, getting back on track after his quasi-eulogy breaks down into weeping — evince a peculiar kind of emotional strength. Our nervous laughter bubbles up as a kind of encouragement to him, much like the whispered reassurances coming from offscreen.

Jim goes right back to work after the funeral, heading out with partner Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson) on patrol, where he has to deal with civilians even more emotionally distressed than he is. His chief had told him to take the week off, and when the situation comes to a head, Jim is frantic not to lose face with his fellow officers by being sent home. He tries to leave on his own terms; no one is convinced.

We watch Jim's diligent efforts to resolve the loose ends of his mother's life — his two siblings, who stayed away from the funeral, do nothing to help — while dealing with his estranged wife Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer). Roz's bitchiness under these circumstances is a bit tough to believe, though later revelations will make it more plausible; she's mostly important here as an obstacle between Jim and Crystal (Kendal Farr), the daughter he loves deeply. Whatever his mother's unexplained faults, Jim grew up prepared to nurture his kid: If having a teacher tell him she may have a reading disability is enough to send him into a cold-sweat panic, imagine what a custody battle will do. In a family-court scene, Cummings locates the precise notes of nervous energy that might make a man of clear goodwill seem risky to a judge.

Back at the police station, Cummings deftly stages a real jolt, suggesting that Jim, in his current state, may not in fact be up to his responsibilities. Robinson is sensitive as the partner who's ready to forgive. But friendship is only going to help Jim so much, and he's compelled to go talk to his sister Morgan (Chelsea Edmundson). In a single scene between the two, the film hints at reasons for rifts in this family while leaving us sure that, capable or not, Jim is going to have to make sense of it all on his own.

The movie has one more gut-punch in store for Jim, pushing him toward an abrupt identification with the speaker in the Springsteen song that haunts him. Abandoned by those who should care, desperate to escape, he begs an apprehensive girl to believe in him just enough to let him drive them toward something better.

Production company: 10 East
Cast: Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson, Jocelyn DeBoer, Macon Blair, Bill Wise, Jordan Fox, Chelsea Edmundson
Director-screenwriter: Jim Cummings
Producers: Zack Parker, Natalie Metzger, Ben Wiessner
Executive producers: Matt Miller, William Pisciotta, Zack Parker, John Cummings
Director of photography: Lowell A. Meyer
Production designer: Charlie Textor
Costume designer: Michaela Beach
Editor: Brian Vannucci
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)

90 minutes