Thursday, August 13, 2009

Film Review: ROLLING THUNDER (1977, John Flynn)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 99 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould. Starring William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Dabney Coleman, Linda Haynes, cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (ALTERED STATES, BLADE RUNNER).
Tag-lines: "Major Charles Rane Is Coming Home To War!"
Best one-liner: "Listen Cliff, I hope you don't mind my saying this but I'd sure appreciate it if you didn't call my kid a runt."
Viewed: 8/8/09 at the Anthology Film Archive in NYC as part of a series of unavailable gritty 70's pictures chosen by Bill Lustig (MANIAC!, VIGILANTE, MANIAC COP).

This is not a simple revenge movie, an exploitation picture, nor is it a 'Nam vets gone wild flick. It's an art film- a powerful examination of frustration, memory, and endless brutality. Written by Paul Schrader (and Heywood Gould), the film centers on Schrader's lifelong fascination: in a society that ceaselessly pendulates between stagnancy and violence, how does the individual come to grips with the pain of living? With one's fists? One's guns? One's hook?

ROLLING THUNDER is TAXI DRIVER, BLUE COLLAR, and a touch of MISHIMA wrapped in one, taut package, full of moody natural lighting and potent chiaroscuro visuals (by BLADE RUNNER cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth). And who better to do the packaging than director John Flynn (THE OUTFIT), whose gritty, efficient storytelling and no-nonsense style perfectly suit the film and its themes?

Shielding himself behind mirrored aviator glasses, Charles Rane (William Devane, in one of the best performances of the 70s) is a burned-out husk brimming with Nitroglycerin: he's dead inside and knows it, but he wants to find his place, wants to put on a smile, wants to jam together the puzzle pieces that just don't fit no matter how hard he tries to force them.

A series of events occur, beginning with his homecoming (to a throng of well-wishers whose applause is as vacant as Rane's soul) and ending with the business end of a garbage disposal. Suddenly there are no more choices to be made, and the path has been set out. It's one he's followed before, and now its as simple as "I'll just get my gear."

Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones in a scary-good role) joins his former Major's quest with obedience and relief, having been equally unable to readjust (with a hilariously unaware, blathering family). It all plays out with a striking lack of standard Hollywood 'emotion' and is so intensely matter-of-fact that it lends itself as frequently to bouts of uncomfortable laughter as it does to recoils of mind-numbing horror. A criminally unavailable American masterpiece.

-Sean Gill

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