Jim Cummings is a star. Writing, directing, and starring in what can only be called cringe porn at its finest, Cummings gives us one of the year’s best independent achievements in Thunder Road, a full-length expansion of an award-winning short film he made two years ago. The short depicts a grieving police officer giving a ramshackle eulogy at his late mother’s funeral, before turning it into a pathetic song-and-dance show in front of the startled attendees. The film opens with the same long take, with Cummings expertly melting down in real time as his character, Officer Jim Arnaud, shifts from giving a touching speech to borderline hysteria within the span of a few minutes. Unlike in the short, however, he does not begin singing Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” and the film (of course) follows his life beyond the funeral, where we learn that he is also going through an acrimonious separation with his wife, sharing custody of their young daughter while they sort out the finer details. With his mother dead and his family life in tatters, Arnaud always seems one bombshell away from totally losing it—the byproduct of a hypermasculine culture that shuns emotionality, and an upbringing that didn’t teach him the proper coping mechanisms.
Cummings has a masterful command of the character’s idiosyncrasies, especially his inability to properly cry. Cummings pulls and contorts his face like putty, and allows his eyes to get reddened and puffy, but never allows himself to sob outright. Not because his acting ability is poor, but because Arnaud cannot deal with extreme emotion. A lot of the time, when he begins pulling his face, he is able to relax it a few seconds later; there is a clockwork-like precision to the way Arnaud tries to regain composure, which we see later on is the very thing that brings about his instability. It’s both uncomfortably hilarious and bitingly sad, in the same way Johannes Kuhnke’s performance was in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. When men are emotionally stunted and have no outlet in which to pour their anguish, the result can be rather disastrous (to say the least). Cummings understands this, and milks it to astonishing effect.
Cummings does go beyond making Arnaud a basket-case, of course. He is clearly a kind man with good intentions, and so it is difficult not to be sympathetic. His love for his daughter also helps ground him in a way that his outbursts cannot. What unfolds is a multifaceted portrait of a man at the point of crisis, valiantly trying to retain the slivers of happiness he has left to him. It’s hard not to laugh at some of the more ridiculous moments, though our laughter abates when we come to recognize the feeling inscribed in Cummings’ work. It comes from a deep place, and the hurt never rings false.