Written, directed, and starring Jim Cummings, Thunder Road is a film leaning on monologues. It begins with a tragically hilarious monologue that takes up about twelve minutes of screen time. This monologue is the entire film in several ways. Like the film, it balances between heartbreaking and humorous, it allows itself to wander within its confines, never rushing to any specific narrative point, and it ends in tragedy.
The film, like its characters, feels lost. Floating through realities, through interactions, through relationships, with no real forceful direction towards any resolution. This is not to say that the film is shapeless, or unintentional. It drips with the thematic intention of grief, loss, and desperate human connection. And it captures all of this with the layered heft of experience. Narrative structure, though, is held together by the aforementioned monologues. Soliloquies of emotional and thematic explanation.
Strangely, the pauses are both the strength of the film and the weakness. They are the strength because they are so masterfully written and performed they capture such humanity and empathetic range they engage and capture some of the most complex and indescribable emotions we communally share. They are the weakness because they both disrupt the ambling flow of the rest of the film and rises so far above it that the rest of the film seems tired and confused, as if it is refueling for the next soliloquy.
Outside of those monologues, the most interesting narrative moments in Thunder Road come with the slow introduction of two subplots. Both of which foreshadow and parallel the journey for two of the main characters.
Firstly, towards the beginning of the film our protagonist, officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings), engages a seemingly raving mad man on the street. Despite all the rationalizations and calmness, the madman will not calm down. It seems unhinged, inexplicable. Through Jim’s journey, however, he finds himself in an almost identical situation. Only this time he is the raving madman. It seems understandable, knowable, even foreseeable. We as an audience have come full-circle in the narrative. We now understand what a thin line rational thought and mental breakdown can navigate.
Secondly, Jim meets a troubled teen girl who seems bored, lost, and disinterested. At the time it seems like a strange narrative subplot, appearing and disappearing with no clear through-line or resolution. Later though, we see that this teen girl goes to the same small school that his own daughter attends. Then the audience sees the connection, sees why he was drawn into trying to help this teen, we see the foreshadowing he fears. The future of his own daughter.
So while Thunder Road could never be called clean, or formulaic, or predictable, it is powerful. The floating narrative style with moments of soliloquy sometimes feels disjointed, confused, and ambling. It also captures these powerful moments of humanity that few films manage drum up.