Jimmy, the troubled cop writer-director-star Jim Cummings introduces us to in his feature debut Thunder Road, first appeared on screen in a short film with the same title from 2016. The point of introduction remains the same: Jimmy (Cummings) giving an especially rambling and lachrymose eulogy at his mother's funeral, though here the scene redirects towards the cop trying to cue up mama's favourite song, Springsteen's "Thunder Road", on a CD player that resolutely fails to cooperate. (It's funny, and it saves on expensive music licensing.) Here is somebody who, from the off, is a bit of a mess: not entirely beyond sincere shows of human compassion - as borne out by his attachment to his daughter by his estranged wife - Jimmy has nevertheless been programmed to act and talk in a particular way. It's why he instinctively hollers "go Tigers" upon the reference in the eulogy to his alma mater. It's why he's shown up to his mother's funeral in full police uniform: he doesn't have a life outside of it. The longer the camera tracks onwards to depict this shambles-in-blue's routine, the more we realise one thing about Thunder Road: the character is more or less the film.
In this respect, Cummings follows an established tradition of American indies conceived, almost like a fringe theatre show, as a showcase for one or other of their creative prime movers. Obvious precedents would include Billy Bob Thornton's work in and on 1996's Sling Blade, no less of a Sundance sensation twenty years ago than Thunder Road was last year, although there are perhaps closer parallels between Jimmy and Officer Jim Kurring, the weathered cop John C. Reilly wrote and improvised with Paul Thomas Anderson for 1999's Magnolia. Cummings' interest in his Jim resides in this lonesome patrolman's status as a man on the brink. Jimmy might use the passing of his remaining parent as an opportunity to attempt a fresh start, clear out the physical and mental clutter of his life, grow up, move on and become a better dad, a better man: there's some passing business to be attended to at his mother's dance academy, an intriguing space into which to pitch this most traditionally masculine and buttoned-down of men. On the job, however, Jimmy is soon revealed as a liability, his grief sloshing into his preexisting frustration and resentment and producing a pretty toxic cocktail. And this dude can't hold his drink.
Cummings the director is often seen standing back from Jimmy the character to make sharp, telling observations: the cop dad striving to watch his language around his pre-teen daughter, or checking his temper around the ex who's just served him with divorce papers. In doing so, this filmmaker reveals a gift for portraiture, and for spotting whenever a guard is being lowered, or being kept up. The slight limitation Thunder Road betrays is that, for some while, it itself seems to be hovering on the brink, at risk of falling between two stools. It can't be as memorably unsettling as, say, a Bad Lieutenant, because it heralds from that upbeat, Sundancey indie sector that intends to make careers rather than turn stomachs. (When Jimmy picks up a wayward teenage girl in a mall car park, he's enough of a gentleman to drop her home, and it's a reassuring sop to liberal audiences that his black partner is also his best friend - this guy's angry, but he's not MAGA-mad, which limits how representative he can be.) Equally, it's never quite as funny as I expected a film with a spiralling buffoon for a protagonist was going to be, forever more droll than openly amusing.
That said, Thunder Road started to grow on me from around the halfway mark: after the vacillation of its first half, there are scenes that plant their feet, take a stance, and make a solid case for expanding the short into a feature, earning the more emotive, redemptive upswing the film eventually takes. I liked the snippet of parents' night activity where Jim and his daughter's teacher (emergent indie bedrock Macon Blair) squeeze themselves into those tiny, weirdly confining chair-and-desk combos unique to the American public school system to agonise over finding the most grown-up and responsible words to discuss the child's pottymouthing. And Cummings pulls off one especially clever cut during a row between officers in front of the station house, revealing the brouhaha has caused the loose-cannon Jimmy to automatically reach for his gun: again, it's not strictly funny, but it underlines how close Thunder Road brings us to something tragic and awful - the cut reveals a truth of a kind.
I suspect the decision not to crack unduly wise came from an understanding on Cummings' part that men and women are currently renegotiating their place in the world, much as our police forces are having to renegotiate their place within the community, and that this is an inherently serious business. Such sensitivity and circumspection lend Thunder Road some value: even as you watch it, you can imagine it popping up in future theses on the masculine in 21st century cinema. (Special reference to the scene in which Jimmy is removed of his uniform to reveal the symbolically tattered Y-fronts beneath.) Yet as an entertainment, it's a debut movie suspended sometimes uneasily between two states of being. The character is the film, which sets Thunder Road apart from all those movies that come our way bearing no character whatsoever; that character is an intriguing focal point - an extreme work-in-progress, far from a hopeless case - but he's not quite there yet. On the evidence of these 90 minutes, Cummings - I think; I hope - is doing rather better for himself.
Thunder Road is available on DVD through Vertigo from Monday.