Back in 2016, a short film called Thunder Road swept the Sundance Festival by storm. It’s an awkwardly funny nine-minute single take of policeman, Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings), eulogising his mother at her funeral. Between fits and pangs of erupting emotion, he waxes despondently about his relationship with his mother; beset with tears, guilty reminiscing and moments of distracted observation. Finally, he makes an embarrassing attempt to perform her favourite song; the titular Thunder Road, by Bruce Springsteen. It’s heartbreaking, hysterically funny and cringe-inducing all at the same time, and absolutely worth the accolades it received.
Coasting on the success of that short, Cummings has turned the story of Arnaud into a feature length production, expanding on the character and his life. The film opens at that same funeral in a reworked version of the short, with Arnaud embarrassing himself in much the same way. The key difference being, he can’t work the CD player, and thus cannot play the song. This marks the beginning of a downward spiral of events, as Arnaud begins to break down, failing to be a good cop, failing as a recently divorced father, and struggling with life in general.
It’s a portrait that feels familiar, condemning and yet, both empathetic and fair. Cummings’ script balances the line between comedy and tragedy beautifully in its portrayal of Arnaud. He’s a man who just can’t cope with the blows life throws at him. But at heart, he’s a good and kind man, and it’s a brilliant performance, keeping him just on the likeable side of buffoonery. But there’s a deep and grim sadness beneath the surface of the film, and within Arnaud himself. Constantly he’s forcing down bursts of emotion that seem constantly ready to erupt from him at any moment. Leading to many of the funniest, and most disturbing moments in the movie.
It’s not a story that points fingers at anyone in particular. While many of Arnaud’s problems come from himself, the film takes pains to show that circumstance, upbringing, other people’s actions, and the random problems of life can conspire to bring anyone down. He’s not without support, but he’s mostly unwilling to accept it. At the same time, he diligently spends time tending to his late mother’s estate, and goes out of his way to try and make his daughter happy. It’s also a story that feels decidedly slight for the hour and a half run time, particularly in the somewhat disjointed first half of the film. Similarly, while we get snippets of Arnaud’s family life, with brief appearances from Jocelyn DeBoer as his wife, and Chelsea Edmundson as his sister, their roles are somewhat underwritten.
Still, it’s a brutally funny exploration of the fragility of modern masculinity, and the strengths that can be found in weakness. A tale of grief and hitting rock bottom that leaves a lot to ponder in its wake.
Available on Digital from Fri 20 Sept 2019