The road from short film to feature has become a well-worn path. One of the best Australian films of last year, Cargo started life as a Tropfest short in 2013, the same year that Damian Chazelle screened his short film version of Whiplash before extending it into the Oscar winning feature in 2014. In both those cases, the feature length versions seemed to effortlessly and successfully take on the additional narrative required to plump up the running time. In the case of THUNDER ROAD it’s a bit more of a struggle. Almost the entire twelve minutes of the short film is reshot and transplanted into the opening of the feature (with a clever little addition to the circumstances that increases the agony of Cummings character, police officer Jim Arnaud – you’ll have to watch both if you want to know what I mean). From here, the relationship between Arnaud and his daughter, Crystal (an exceptional performance from Kendal Farr) and his estranged wife Ros (Jocelyn DeBoer) subtly hinted at in the end of the short, is teased out into a domestic divorce drama that highlights the tightly wound and mostly suppressed character of Jim Arnaud that Cummings seems to delight in playing. He admits, himself, that he’s angry although when pressed on the state of his grief and frustration by his long-suffering partner, Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson) he maintains that ‘he’s fine’. Quite clearly, he’s not.
THUNDER ROAD is billed as a drama/comedy. For me, whilst there’s a rich seam of very dark wit running throughout the film, it falls flat as a comedy and, to be honest, that’s fine. Once you get your head around the idea that ‘comedy’ is a misnomer for this story, the intensely personal drama of Arnaud’s disintegrating life draws you in. He’s a man lost at the intersection of crisis and denial and Cummings performance of the concealed pain and his desperation to be a good father to his daughter, a good son to his departed mother and a good cop to the community are played out painfully and beautifully. Yes, the story flags at times and many scenes follow the same dynamic of Arnaud’s mania and acting-out to extremes but, for the most part, Cummings is on top of these things as director and performer, if not as screenwriter.
What’s most interesting to me, in the light of numerous incendiary situations (in the States) between cops, perpetrators and innocent bystanders, are the scenes of Arnaud and his partner Nate dealing with the day to day of their job – the mentally unwell man ranting on the street, or the burglar in the convenience store. These are circumstances that we see escalate not because of the internal dynamic of the situation, but because of the external influence of Arnaud’s state of mind. Even a seemingly innocuous exchange between Arnaud and Crystal’s teacher threatens to boil over into something violent. This is an ordinary guy who’s ready to explode.
THUNDER ROAD may not have the comedy that its marketing campaign and one of its trailers would suggest, and it may show signs of having been expanded from its original twelve minute narrative, but these things aside, it’s a powerhouse of a performance that is frightening in what it portrays of men who know what the world wants of them emotionally, but don’t quite know how to deliver it.