Everything Falls Apart

By Tim Winterstein

There’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as watching someone who does awkward well. In comedy, consider both Steve Carell’s Michael Scott and Ricky Gervais’ David Brent on both the American and English versions of The Office. But Jim Cummings could teach a master class on dramatic and (within the world of the film) unintentional awkwardness—that is, he does teach a master class in his first full-length, Thunder Road (available for rent or purchase on iTunes or Amazon).

It started as a short film, of which a version became the first scene of the feature. Apparently, after that, it was sort of a meteoric rise for Cummings: Thunder Road won the Short Film Grand Jury prize at Sundance, won the Special Jury award and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at SXSW (which the feature won), and played at Cannes. (You can watch the short here, and then you’ll want to watch the feature.)

Those first 12 minutes—I think I prefer the short version, where “Thunder Road” actually plays, although its omission is a thought-provoking choice—might be the reason why I do not allow eulogies during the funeral itself. Because you never know what people are going to say, and they’re often going to say things like, “She didn’t believe in any of this, but that’s okay.”

As far as I’m concerned, this single-shot scene is as close to perfect as it gets for a short film. The writing—or ad-libbing, I’m not sure—is perfect, and the delivery is as close to what I would expect from a real experience as possible. It feels like it was really captured at a funeral, not acted.

From there, it’s a slow, chaotic falling apart that opens up the possibility of healing at the end. Every scene with Cummings contains surprises because you never quite know what Jim Arnaud is going to do. He alternates between naivete, mature adult decisions, nearly unhinged, and moments of sweet thoughtfulness (my favorite is when he practices all night to be able to play a hand-clapping game with his daughter). Most of the time he’s close to sane, but a little off, as if Arnaud, rather than Cummings, is acting out the various roles he’s been given: parent, policeman, citizen, and son.

It’s as if Arnaud has awakened to find himself in a life that he chose, but didn’t choose; a world where he knows his place, but feels out of place; a father playing the role of father with only the barest outline of what such a character would be like. And that’s part of what makes the film so interesting to me. It feels so far off from how people normally act, and yet it’s exactly how people act. It’s the strange point at which mundane reality meets the unbelievable—and that point is named Jim Arnaud.

Jim Cummings seems to have a knack for this characterization. After I saw the short version of Thunder Road, I watched another of his mostly single-shot shorts, The Robbery (lots of NSFW language, so you’re forewarned), which is part of a series of character-driven short films. I think It’s All Right, It’s OK is my other favorite. But Crystal’s character in The Robbery could have been a female version of Jim Arnaud: the perfect combination of decisive action and awkward unawareness. Rae Gray is a natural. It’s been a while since a film made me laugh out loud (yes, literally). The Robbery did.

So I’m looking forward to seeing how Cummings advances this sort of character into something else in his next work. For now, I can just watch Thunder Road over and over.