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3 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Rolling Thunder
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by Brett Gallman

"A chilling snapshot of post-Vietnam America."
4 stars

Paul Schrader's cinematic contributions are well documented and to recount them would be to simply restate the obvious. However, his status as one of the 70s most important historians and the way in which those early contributions captured the zeitgeist of a decade is perhaps his most important legacy.

Not only was he among the first to articulate the angst and rage that festered during the Vietnam War, but he also brilliantly married it to the vigilante film, a genre that arguably had its roots in the conflict anyway. With their country mired in an increasingly indefensible war, Americans turned to on-screen vigilantes to recapture a displaced sense of righteous justice and restore it to a populace whose government had failed them.

Schrader simply took the subtext and made it the text in "Taxi Driver," a film that tackled the darker implications of such impulses. Released a year later, "Rolling Thunder" found the screenwriter in similar territory; this time, though, the ground was grungier and lined with the soil of exploitation--it's a good old fashioned revenge picture, albeit one that broods with an incredible sense of ambivalence.

Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has been a POW in Vietnam for seven years; when he and fellow prisoner Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) arrive home to a hero's welcome, the latter says that he can't face the crowd. His superior officer advises him to hide behind a pair of aviators, and it's a moment that expresses all you need to know about their damaged psyches. Their return during the film's opening credits is accompanied by Denny Brook's wistful "San Antone," a song whose soft rock crooning would have been alien to these two; soon, its sentiment will be completely lost on them, too.

Rane particularly finds no solace in his homecoming. As he tours the town, he dutifully takes in its appreciation but hardly revels in it. At home, he must confront a son that doesn't know him and a wife who has fallen for another man. Neither seems to faze him all that much, though, as the horrors of Vietnam have reduced him to a husk that only seems to find a twisted sort of pleasure in dwelling on his torments. At one point, he even goes so far as to enlist his wife's new lover in a masochistic reenactment of his captor's torture methods. Devane brilliantly underplays the obvious psychosis to the point where Rane seems perfectly functional. When a local girl (Linda Haynes) becomes smitten with him, he does his best to entertain her overtures.

There's a distance to him, though. He can't simply let himself be because he has nothing to be, at least until a pack of thugs invade his house and attempt to rob him. Suddenly, a glimmer sparks into his eye as the ringleader (Luke Askew) orders his cohorts to torture Rane so he'll disclose the location of a cache of silver dollars (one of the rewards the city bestowed upon him). He refuses, of course, and takes a subtle, almost wry delight in foiling their plans, even as they're mutilating his hand in the garbage disposal. Fate cruelly intervenes when his wife and son unwittingly enter the home, and their compliance is met with gunshots as the crooks gun everyone down.

They don't finish Rane off, and he finds himself awakening in a hospital without a family. It's at this point that "Rolling Thunder" becomes both predictable yet compelling. Rather than play to schlocky or sentimental expectations, director John Flynn instead keeps an even keel. Rane's quest for vengeance obviously seems natural within the framework of this genre--he even outfits himself with a hook to replace his severed hand, an affectation that might be played up for exploitative thrills in other films (think on the various movies where similar anti-heroes replace missing limbs with some absurd weaponry, such as a machine gun), but the film is so nonchalant about it. Seeking revenge seems to renew Rane's lost sense of duty, and it's interesting that he rarely mentions his motivation--his son comes up once in conversation, while his wife is completely forgotten.

Instead, Devane and Haynes hit the trail and pursue his attackers into Mexico, where the film becomes even more rugged and brusque. Rane makes no qualms about using his female companion to snuff them out, but she's inexplicably drawn to this borderline sociopath. Their pairing would seemingly evoke the outlaw duo films that populated the decade in the wake of "Bonnie & Clyde" if the film weren't so intent on slyly subverting certain expectations. The relationship between these two is intriguing--the closest they ever come to bonding comes when she recounts her childhood as the two fire shots off into a lake. There's a faint hint of something, but Rane seems to know there's no real connection here.

If there's anyone he can come close to connecting with, it's Vohden, who has similarly found it hard to adjust after returning from Vietnam. Now living in El Paso and forced to endure the droning inanity of domestic life, he also seems longing to retreat back to the primitivism of the jungle. Rane pays him a visit, and the two respectfully listen to the banal patter in the Vohden household (one conversation pointedly centers on America's ineffectiveness at car manufacturing) before the major privately reveals that he�s found the men that murdered his son. "I'll just get my gear," Vohden immediately says before casually insisting that the two will simply "clean 'em up."

That's probably the closest thing to a touching moment in "Rolling Thunder," and it's one of my favorite understated scenes in any film. So much is left unsaid in this exchange, which features no hesitation or heavy-handed sentiment. It's just two damaged guys who have resigned themselves to never feeling at home unless they're amidst the chaos of savagery and violence. For all they know, their trip to Juarez could be a one-way suicide mission; either way, the intent is clear: they're "gonna kill a bunch of people," as Vohden so eloquently puts it.

Jones is staggering in this somewhat limited role, as he communicates a disturbing gleefulness once Rane and Vohden begin to shoot up the place and paint its walls with blood. That the two choose to wear their uniforms is also unsettling--I can't decide if it's a critique on the atrocities committed by many American servicemen or a desperate attempt to see those in uniform actually doling out deserved justice.

The ambivalence at the heart of �Rolling Thunder� makes for an interesting 70s document. It neither shies away from nor glamorizes its violence�instead, it�s just a fact of life, much like the revenge that motivates it. This is a world with little room for black and white, as it operates in ambiguous shades of grey that paint a void of human connection. Its most affecting and tangible relationship is between two men who can�t wait to kick down the doors of a whorehouse and exterminate all of the vermin inside, a notion that even twists camaraderie into something that�s misshapen and lost. Furthermore, there�s no doubt that their targets are an abhorrent pack of thieves and murderers who revel in their own sleaziness, so the film almost entices viewers into enjoying the eventual retribution.

I don�t think it goes all the way there, though. There�s a certain unease in the margins and between the lines that keeps this from descending into pure grindhouse fare since Flynn does play it low key. �Rolling Thunder� isn�t prone to melodrama or hysterics; it�s a reflection of its almost impenetrable leading man, who spends much of his screen-time hidden behind those vacuous aviators. Devane is utterly perfect for the role, if only for his Kennedy-esque countenance that instantly brings an additional dimension to the film�s allegorical implications (in a sense, the film can be read as a pure reflection of the corruption of Kennedy-era optimism).

His performance is powerfully subtle. What could have been a one-note character is transformed into a nuanced human being whose humanity has slowly slipped away, and it�s only awakened when he�s able to indulge those primal urges. Like Travis Bickle before him, Charles Rane is both a metaphorical site for post-Vietnam anxieties and a legitimately compelling character that stretches beyond his symbolism.

Ultimately, �Rolling Thunder� isn�t the masterpiece �Taxi Driver� is due to its shagginess and sometimes leisurely pacing, but it makes for a fine companion piece. Long considered to be the more exploitative cousin to Scorsese�s film, �Rolling Thunder� has become a cult favorite that was notoriously difficult to see despite having a high profile fan in Quentin Tarantino, who named his own production company after the film. A couple of years ago, MGM finally unleashed it from the vault for a no-frills, manufactured on demand release that might have sated fans simply eager to see the film properly restored.

Those same fans will no doubt be thrilled by Shout Factory�s upgraded Blu-ray release, which features a vivid transfer that also retains the film�s gritty, grainy cinematography. The accompanying lossless mono soundtrack is likewise strong, and the disc is rounded out with a healthy set of extra features. In addition to the typical promo stuff (radio spots, TV spots, the film�s theatrical trailer), there�s a retrospective documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew, including Schrader and co-writer Heywood Gould.

Apparently, the latter came on board and re-wrote the script and altered its tone along the way, which is perhaps why the film sometimes leans towards some exploitation tendencies. Some further digging also reveals that Schrader has candidly discussed his disappointment since the film was originally closer to the spirit of �Taxi Driver,� so it�s possible I�ve given him a little bit too much credit here.

Still, it�s difficult to deny that his voice doesn�t ring through. It�s particularly detectable in the film�s ability to capture raw anxiety and its refusal to blink at the pervasive horrors of Vietnam. That anxiety reveals itself in the disquieting hangover after the fog of war�despite the title, this film explores the disquieting calm between the storms, when the thunder�s rumbling off in the distance. Chaos looms on either side, and the absence of that chaos produces a void that these characters are all too eager to fill.

�Rolling Thunder� isn�t a catharsis so much as it�s an insistence that catharsis might be impossible�there is only a steady barrage of ineffectual violence that lulls one into a false sense of triumph.

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originally posted: 05/18/13 17:27:38
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User Comments

4/06/16 FireWithFire Tarantino loves it - villains are White Southern rednecks.Quentin is a self-loathing RACIST 3 stars
3/26/14 jarod GREAT MOVIE---CLASSIC 5 stars
5/21/13 kevin lause Much better than I remembered it being. Interesting companion piece to the more familiar Vi 4 stars
5/23/11 Michael Frye Revenge, well played 4 stars
8/09/10 GEORGE B. FEIST You can watch it on on your PC I saw this at the movies when it came out 4 stars
10/18/08 Jack Sommersby Uneven and lumpy, but it's still affecting stuff with marvelous acting and dialogue. 3 stars
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  14-Oct-1977 (R)
  DVD: 28-Jan-2011



Directed by
  John Flynn

Written by
  Paul Schrader
  Heywood Gould

  William Devane
  Tommy Lee Jones
  Linda Haynes
  James Best
  Dabney Coleman

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