Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rolling Thunder (1977)

After the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver (1976), the door was suddenly swung open for filmed tales of damaged Vietnam veterans trying and failing to reintegrate back into American society. While The Exterminator (1980) and First Blood (1982) (as well as dozens of knock-offs) were later able to mine this material for less cerebral thrills, writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and no-nonsense director John Flynn paired the subject with that of the popular revenge thrillers of the time to create an entirely new kind of entertainment. Praised by a slew of directors – chief among them Quentin Tarantino, who named his short-lived distribution company after the film – it has remained underappreciated due to not being easily available since its release, but remains ripe for rediscovery by genre fans.

Major Charles Rane (a steely William Devane) returns home from a Vietnamese prison camp to find a San Antonio that he can barely recognize. While the city treats him like a hero, his wife has moved on to another man and his son barely remember him. His nights are plagued by memories of the torture he received, and he can barely contain his distaste for the world he’s now forced to live in. It’s only after a brutal attack that leaves his family dead and his arm mutilated in a garbage disposal that his life finally regains purpose as he methodically hunts down and kills the men who’ve wronged him, with the help of fellow POW Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and barmaid Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes). The final confrontation in an El Paso whorehouse is rightfully legendary, featuring sudden, intense violence that maintains its ability to shock.

What is most surprising about Rolling Thunder as a revenge story is how deliberately slow it is in getting to its retribution The first half hour plays as a nuanced character study with little hint of the violence that is ahead. These scenes are bravely anchored on the performance by Devane, and he’s fabulous in a role that requires intense restraint with trauma lurking just behind his eyes. This is a man who has learned to embrace the violence and pain of his imprisonment, demonstrated in a telling conversation with his wife’s new beau where he states “That's how you beat people who torture you. You learn to love 'em”. He’s not visibly broken, but his mental state is in shambles.

The eventual attack occurs entirely without warning – Major Rane comes home to find a group of thugs waiting to extort the recent gift of silver dollars that he received from the city – and their attack is brutal. Rane, used to brutal treatment, is completely silent, but his returning family seal their fate by walking in on the violence. Director John Flynn (The Jerusalem File (1972), Defiance (1980)) is wisely restrained during this scene, though it’s still a vicious and disturbing assault. The attackers are a quite a wonderfully sleazy collection, including James Best (best known as Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) as Tex, and the wonderful character actor Luke Askew as the memorably named Automatic Slim.

After a long hospital stay where his wrist is fitted with a hook, Rane begins his bloody search for revenge in Mexico. Linda Haynes as his “groupie” and love interest doesn’t really provide much, but she is a necessary part of his plan for tracking down the assailants. These scenes are notable for their air of menace before sudden punctuations of violence as the Major gets closer to his targets. Discovering that they’ve settled in El Paso, Rane gets together with fellow POW and friend Johnny Vohden – who is more visibly affected by his experiences during the war - who jumps at the opportunity to be part of the assault. Tommy Lee Jones looks shockingly young here, but the scenes of him obviously failing to adjust to his new family life are a highlight. He also gets perhaps the best line when asked by a prostitute what he’s planning after Rane turns the whorehouse (which contains Automatic Slim and the rest of his gang) into a shooting gallery: “I'm gonna kill a bunch of people.”

The film ends suddenly, violently. There is no relief here. No exhale and no victory. You get the feeling that these men simply have no existence outside of the violence they’ve caused. No future to look forward to. Their mission complete, the credits simply roll and we’re left to ponder what years of intense violence can do to the minds of men. Many films featuring traumatized vets were to follow, but few carry the weight and intensity (or, it must be admitted, thrills) of this lost classic. One of the great revenge films, and highly recommended.


Burgundy LaRue said...

I've heard good things about this movie. Did you buy the archive release? I don't see where it's available on Netflix.

Doug Tilley said...

It really does live up to the hype, and I hope it gets the release that it actually deserves. The version I saw was a recording of a HD television broadcast of the film and looked quite good, but this is a film that stands up to the very best revenge films of the period - and deserves a big special edition representative of that.

Christopher Bussmann said...

I love this film. A great companion piece to The Outfit, which I reviewed here last year.