Wednesday 8 February 2012


(John Flynn, 1977)

Probably better-known these days as one of Quentin Tarantino's favourite films than for any other reason, Rolling Thunder was originally written by Paul Schrader in his 1970s pomp, just a year after the (similar in a few respects) triumph of Taxi Driver. The screenplay was rewritten by journeyman Heywood Gould, but Schrader retains a credit, and you can hear his voice throughout the film.
His story follows Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), who returns to San Antonio, Texas after seven years in a Vietnamese POW Camp. His homecoming sees him rewarded by his grateful hometown with a silver dollar for every day of his incarceration, a new red chevy, and the news that his wife is leaving him for another man. Things get worse when a gang of thugs invade his home, torture him for the whereabouts of those silver dollars - the meeting between his hand and a garbage disposal is unforgettable - then murder his wife and child and leave him for dead. So Rane sets out for revenge with the help of an old POW buddy (Tommy Lee Jones) and Mexico and gunplay inevitably ensue.
That plot makes the film sound like a typical piece of 70s B-movie pulp, and that is what Rolling Thunder is. But it is more interesting than a synopsis suggests. Alongside the sleaze and nastiness and the casually racist portrayal of Mexico, its depiction of its Vietnam veteran protagonists presents them as almost inhuman. Both Devane and Jones constantly - and with no little foreboding - wear sunglasses, their eyes hidden, faces unreadable. They are damaged men, utterly desensitised by the violence inflicted upon them. This gives rise to a few amazing scenes. If Devane's explanation of how to survive torture and consequent homoerotic re-enactment with his wife's lover is disturbing, then his explanation that he is "dead", that they had taken something from him and he would never feel anything again explains both that and his entire performance. He underplays throughout, mostly expressionless, only really seeming to come alive in the scenes of violence. His insistence upon living in the garden shed as if it were his cell in Vietnam contrasts with Jones' prison; he is suffocating within the warm embrace of his family, his haunted eyes flat in response to their banalities. Like Devane, his glee at the apocalyptic violence of the climax is nicely, frighteningly played. Where Devane is prickly and complicated, Jones is beautiful, magnetic.
But Rolling Thunder does succeed as a piece of pulp, too. Director Flynn works with a lean, muscular economy, like Walter Hill, only lacking his ambition and imagination, but with a similar gift for staging and even, at times, for composition. Noirish lighting and precise cutting add to the murky atmosphere, and the action scenes are terrific; brutishly, graphically violent and blunt in their clarity. There are some fine pulp details, too: the hissably awful villains, Devane sharpening his claw until it is a blade, Jones' lack of response with a whore turning into delight once the gunfire starts, and the gratuitous nudity at various points.
Easy then to see just what Tarantino likes so much.

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