Thunder Road perpetually teeters between hilarious and heartbreaking

A police officer raises his daughter as a love letter to his late mother in this SXSW-winner written and directed by and starring Jim Cummings. Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Critic Tony Stamp isn’t sure, but that’s why he found it so engaging.

It was interesting to watch the impact of the UK Office, and more specifically Ricky Gervais, ripple across the American comedy landscape. Echoes of certain very British mannerisms appeared in films like The Foot Fist Way and TV shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, as creators became more emboldened to push their comedy to darker places than innovators like Christopher Guest and Garry Shandling had dared.

Thunder Road feels like it exists on that continuum, with writer-director-lead Jim Cummings taking on the role of ‘man who doesn’t realise he’s having a nervous breakdown’ that Gervais made so familiar. Here though, Cummings walks a much finer line between comedy and tragedy, perpetually teetering between hilarious and heartbreaking. Put it this way—I spent a large part of the film unsure if I should be laughing or not.

The first scene is a good litmus test: a single unbroken take that lasts for over ten minutes, of Cummings’ character speaking at his mother’s funeral, his behaviour becoming increasingly weird as he descends into grief. You’re watching a man fall apart, but jeez, what a doofus. The fact that he’s an armed police officer makes things even uneasier, and has implications that linger throughout Thunder Road.

You can watch a version of the scene here: it’s the short film that got Cummings funding to make it feature-length.

I’ve seen two trailers doing the rounds. The first spoils many surprising moments and should be avoided. The other paints the film as a straight drama, and… maybe it is? But as Cummings keeps pushing his character beyond sympathetic you may find it hard not to laugh. All that said, it’s a small film about a man struggling at his job and trying to connect with his daughter. Familiar stuff, but it’s the singular, slightly deranged execution that makes it strangely thrilling.