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(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and ran all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)

Writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ 2016 short Thunder Road, just over 12 minutes, takes place at a funeral service and consists of a single shot, during which lead character Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings), a policeman whose mother lies in the casket behind him, has a complete mental breakdown while dancing to Bruce Springsteen’s titular 1975 hit, his version of a eulogy. It’s achingly sad and brutally funny, both, the long take adding to our discomfort as we watch things go from bad to worse. Making the situation even more painful, Jimmy’s daughter, sitting in the front row, is overcome with embarrassment, rejecting him at the end. That’s quite a lot to pack into such a brief running time, yet Cummings pulls it off with brilliant mise-en-scène and powerful acting.

Now, two years later, Cummings is back with a feature-length adaptation of the same story. We begin as before, at the funeral, though–no direct plot spoilers–this time he changes the details to make it even stranger. The challenge then becomes how to top that opener. Remarkably, Cummings keeps upping the ante of mayhem until his poor protagonist is brought so low that there really is no way to go but up. It’s a wild ride down a road far more than merely thunderous. As both writer and director, Cummings proves his mettle time and again, swerving madly from comedy to tragedy without missing a beat, proficient at both genres, and especially at their intersection. There were a few moments where I felt he went too far, perhaps, but then he pulled it back and made it work again. Impressive all around.

As an actor, Cummings demonstrates equal talent, carrying every scene he is in…which is every scene. His Officer Arnaud, divorced and quasi-estranged from his daughter, unstable in the aftermath of his mother’s death and determined to do everything he can to turn his boss and colleagues against him, careens like a lunatic from crisis to crisis, mostly of his own making. Cummings invests the character with a manic energy suffused with sadness and desperation that is simultaneously appealing and frightening.

His supporting cast provides exquisitely able assistance, from young Kendal Farr as the disaffected daughter, to Jocelyn DeBoer as the ex-wife, to Nican Robinson as Arnaud’s long-suffering partner. Shot in Austin, Texas, the film has a solid feel of Anywhere, USA, Cummings eschewing known landmarks in favor of generic working- and middle-class homes. It’s the perfect setting for this tale of one man’s massive cry–nay, shriek–for help, his own raw need lending the affair all the specificity required. It’s a film worthy of its Springsteen antecedents, and then some.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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