Other cool shit I’ve watched recently

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Okay, I hadn’t heard of Rolling Thunder either until recently, when I found a list of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite grindhouse films online. An obscurity, which is strange considering what a well made and enjoyable film this is.

William Devane stars as Major Charles Rane, returned from Vietnam where he was captured and tortured relentessly. Once back on American soil he has to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity and forge a relationship with a son who cannot remember him. Rane’s readjustment goes from bad to worse when a gang of criminals pays a visit after seeing him being gifted a suticase full of silver dollars on television. What follows is a vigilante revenge thriller with sudden bursts of explosive violence.

Directed by John Flynn, Rolling Thunder was adapted from a script by Paul Schrader and filmed shortly after the release of Taxi Driver. The two films have a lot in common, but Rolling Thunder is definitely the nastier of the two. Whereas Travis Bickle was confused by his emotional responses, Rane has been stripped of his humanity and struggles to have any kind of emotional response at all. He functions mechanically and constantly has to be told by others what his feelings ought to be and how he might reasonably be expected to act.

Rane is a quiet man, broken by his experiences, and William Devane’s performance is suitably studied and convincing. There’s a fantastic scene early on in the film where he shares a beer with his wife’s lover, completely devoid of resentment or anger. This inhuman lack of emotion makes him all the more threatening, so that when he politely asks for the man to stop calling his son “Runt” it carries real menace.

Similarly affected by his experiences in Vietnam is Johnny Vohden, played by a very young Tommy Lee Jones. Vohden is even more soulless than Rane and later in the film it is clear he’s completely detached from the rest of his family. Even more disturbingly, the only people Rane and Vohden seem to be able to properly relate to is each other. They respond to each other almost instinctively, without uncertainty or even a hint of an argument, even when lives hang in the balance.

These marvellous performances are underpinned by a tragedy which will stay with you after the credits roll. However exciting the action in the film may be, these are men left whose ability to maintain a fulfilling existence has been irreparably damaged. As its revealed right at the very start, they don’t wear sunglasses because of the way they look, they wear them because they don’t know how to face the world. After so many years of suffering, they find that suffering is all they know how to do.

Perhaps it’s this haunting quality which stops the film from being a commercial success. Perhaps audiences don’t want films without hope of a happy ending. I don’t honestly know why Rolling Thunder remains an obscure film, but I know it doesn’t deserve to be.

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