Rolling Thunder

74/100

Rolling Thunder‘s reputation was burnished considerably in the 1990s when Quentin Tarantino declared it one of his favorite films. It’s a good call; Tarantino owes his career to his long-standing love affair with the grindhouse, and Rolling Thunder is in many ways the quintessence of Hollywood exploitation. Director John Flynn, who made a name for himself with his 1973 adaptation of a Donald E. Westlake novel, The Outift, comes across as an efficient, focused storyteller who pares narrative to the bone. That style of filmmaking really allows (or requires) performance to come to the fore, and in the intense vigilante fantasy Rolling Thunder, both William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones deliver smart and scary interpretations of the soul-damaged protagonist and sidekick, respectively. Flynn certainly wasn’t a self-conscious stylist, and he ended up toiling in the gulag of undistinguished action pictures like the 1989 Stallone-in-prison flick Lock Up and the Steven Seagal revenge thriller Out for Justice. He died in 2007, and Rolling Thunder is just remarkable enough that you want to bemoan his anonymity.


It’s tempting to describe Rolling Thunder as a straight-ahead revenge thriller, but that’s short-changing the careful build-up of the film’s first third, which deals fairly sensitively with the issues facing Vietnam vet Charles Rane (Devane), an ex-POW returning “home” to a son who doesn’t remember him, a house that’s barely changed, and a wife who’s engaged to an old buddy of his named Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll). Early scenes in which Rane and fellow soldier Johnny Vohden (Jones) are greeted by Boy Scouts, Little League baseball players, and a marching band reveal the disconnect between patriotic, God-bless-America hokum and the blank, sunglassed stares of broken men. Released in 1977, the film was ahead of the curve when it came to dramas depicting the process of assimilation for Vietnam vets returning to the U.S., and it’s remarkable that Rolling Thunder could be a template for so many other movies about military veterans–those trained killers struggling to assimilate in polite society. It’s more or less the exact same set-up as Showtime’s Homeland, for instance, minus the is-he or isn’t-he-a-terrorist gimmick.

The picture undergoes a radical tonal shift about a third of the way in, when Rane is visited by a gang of small-time Mexican and American thugs who are interested in some 2,000 silver dollars Rane reportedly has in his possession–a well-publicized gift from a local bank commemorating his time in captivity. The gang ends up shoving his arm down a garbage disposal, gunning down his wife and kid, and leaving him for dead. As he recovers in hospital, his mangled right hand replaced by a gleaming prosthetic hook/pincer, Rane disclaims any memory of the events of that day. He bides his time, waiting until he’s well enough to saw off a shotgun, painstakingly sharpen up his hook, and head south of the border, down Mexico way, to track down his assailants.

The unusual thing about Rolling Thunder, as these films go, is Rane’s lack of passion. There are no emotional cues on Devane’s face in the key scenes; he takes the death of his boy in stride, the same way he takes his own disfigurement. They are things that happen to him, and not events he has any control over. But as far as what happens next, well, he has every intention of dominating the messy aftermath. Devane is a fairly handsome man by my reckoning, if a bit reptilian in his facial features, but when he puts on an enormous pair of sunglasses, he’s all lips. I mean no disrespect when I refer to his overstated Muppet mouth–especially the languid, distended lower lip that juts out absurdly from his face, creating a macho pout. He seems perpetually angry and forever on the verge of tears without once cracking. Kris Kristofferson was apparently originally set to star but dropped out, making Devane’s stony, largely deadpan appearance here a fortuitous casting coup.

Tommy Lee Jones is only in a couple of scenes before the final act, when Rane rousts him from home and family with the promise of a revenge mission, but he impresses most with his impassivity. It would be going too far to say his face lights up, yet when Rane tells him, softly, “I found…the men who killed my son,” he finally comes back to life, like the Zuni fetish doll that terrorizes Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror, or that Martian spaceship buried under London for five million years in Quatermass and the Pit. He has the demeanour of Mr. Spock as he responds, packing his shotgun into a travel bag, “Let’s go clean ’em up.” And his coolness under pressure in the chaotic climactic shootout is impressive.

There’s a girl, of course–Linda Forchet, a “young Texas belle” with a thing for military men. Exploitation aficionados will recognize Linda Haynes from her role as a prostitute in Jack Hill’s terrific Coffy, here playing a local girl looking for a good man. Haynes is beautiful, with a slightly weather-beaten look to her that adds character. When she complains to Rane about the steady stream of SOBs that have paraded through her love life, you can believe it. Haynes’s performance has some pathos, and the film cares about her misfortune–just not enough to give her a proper character arc. She’s developed and then abandoned, a symptom of Rolling Thunder‘s status as a familiar type of macho fantasy.

Haynes disrobed in subsequent pictures but was not asked to go nude here, though she dresses in a succession of exceptionally tight tops that manage to get the job done, more or less. The movie’s moment of sexual release doesn’t come when Linda goes down on Rane (Flynn cuts chastely away to resolve a subplot involving Cliff’s doomed attempt to save Rane from himself), but rather in the explosive siege on the Mexican whorehouse where Rane’s attackers are holed up. It begins with Vohden hiring a prostitute to lead him upstairs as Rane sneaks in through the back of the building; she sticks her hand in his pants and starts stroking gently as the camera pans down to show him wrapping his fingers almost tenderly around the shaft of his Winchester 1897 shotgun. Moments later, squibs are bursting, liquor bottles are exploding, and naked women are running hither and yon in what plays as a rougher, less lyrical reprise of the famous gunfight at the end of The Wild Bunch.

Knowing that Paul Schrader was one of two credited screenwriters, I tried to imagine what kind of movie this would have been had Martin Scorsese directed it and decided that, yeah, it would be Taxi Driver. 1 Both films have an unstable, sexually-awkward Vietnam vet (anti)hero, an apparent fascination with firearms and other implements of destruction, and a bullet-ridden climax where the protagonist mows down some bad guys to oddly ambiguous effect. There was actually a bit of a dust-up over Rolling Thunder‘s script, after Devane suggested that Heywood Gould be brought in to work on it. Production went smoothly, as far as I know, but when the film came out, Schrader was seething. Gould had removed some of the more explicit political content from the screenplay, including direct references to Jane Fonda and the anti-war movement in the U.S., and he had endeavored to make Devane a more sympathetic character in general. Gould’s drafts embellished Rane’s home life, deepened his relationship with Linda, and elided his racism, in part by dropping two casual uses of the slur spic. (The rewrites even fleshed out the character of Cliff, who has a whole pointless subplot dedicated to him in Gould’s final draft.) Schrader’s screenplay had johns and prostitutes alike being killed in the climactic gunfight, while the movie makes a point of showing the women running away from the action. Perhaps most damagingly in Schrader’s eyes, the ending was retooled to allow Rane to survive what looked like a suicide mission.

Schrader once said that making Charles Rane not-racist was like “giving Travis Bickle a dog,” and slammed the filmed version of his screenplay as “fascist,” which is one way of looking at it. Deflecting Rolling Thunder‘s racist attitudes from the shoulders of the main character has the effect of making it look even more racist, in all its grinning, lecherous Mexican caricatures, than it might have. On the other hand, some of the picture’s finest material came from Gould’s rewrites. I’m thinking specifically of the quiet, devastating scene where Rane’s wife, on his first night home, fills him in on the fruits of the sexual revolution—women wear miniskirts now, and they don’t wear brassieres!—before quietly informing him that she has fallen in love with another man. Who has asked her to marry him. Which she will be doing soon. (Sorry, Charlie.) That scene is photographed, by the way, with an almost preternatural sensitivity to light by the great Jordan Cronenweth, who would go on to shoot Altered States, Blade Runner, and Stop Making Sense. The scene is lit from one side, and half of Devane’s face and both his eyes are thrown into shadow. Deep down in the photochemical darkness and grain, you can barely discern the whites of his eyes, and the tiny spots of white light reflected in his pupils just register. It’s magnificent, perfect work in a film that never demanded perfection, or even suggested its possibility.

The character of Vohden changed, too. Schrader’s original script has Rane convincing Vohden to come with him to the whorehouse in Juarez, Vohden playing the understood role of family man, uttering those immortal lines: “My wife, the kids.” In the filmed version, Vohden simply snaps to it like a hungry lizard going after a fat little beetle. It’s a difficult moment, but to an audience it’s a highly gratifying one–the promise of bloody action to come.

Schrader wanted to unsettle and maybe even indict viewers, but Gould and Flynn aimed to–more or less–please the audience. Those conflicting intentions–and Schrader’s displeasure–aside, Rolling Thunder as released doesn’t have anything like a happy ending. (Its heroes are alive, yes, though you have to imagine the reaction of the local authorities, the press, and their poor families.) Still, its effect on audiences was pronounced. The Christian Science Monitor reported in 1980 that 20th Century Fox President Alan Ladd Jr. sold the $5 million film to American International Pictures after being disturbed by a San Jose test audience’s reaction. 2 No wonder: The final sequence of Rolling Thunder really is something to behold. While the years and decades may have blunted its impact, it’s easy to wonder why such a sensational film wasn’t more successful on its release. It’s violence-as-sex, bloodshed-as-popped-chubby, an anhedonic metaphor for sexual pleasure. Its turgid, priapic grandeur is the inverse of that mild-mannered supermarket scene from the ending of The Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner figures out that shopping for Cheerios is never going to give him a boner. In its equation of vigilante bloodshed with all-consuming orgasm, Rolling Thunder may even be dangerous. And that’s why it endures.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

Although you might get a sinking feeling from the first few minutes of Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release of Rolling Thunder, it will pass. The opening scenes are unusually soft and have funky grain effects, largely because the optically-printed titles result in a generational loss of quality. Picture quality improves considerably as soon as the director’s credit is off the screen, and stays at a fairly high level for the duration, with adequate (not exceptional) shadow detail. There are no signs of edge-enhancement or overly aggressive noise reduction. Don’t get the wrong idea: this is a grainy picture, some shots have softness about them, and the image hasn’t been scrubbed of all dirt and other blemishes (including some ugly yellow blotches that rear their ugly heads occasionally). It’s hard to say for sure, since they may well have been blasted out on film, too, deliberately or not, but some highlights seem to have clipped slightly. Moreover, many of the darker scenes look like they weren’t compressed especially well, and the film grain can become a little blocky, detracting from the generally cinematic look. Because of this, I have to question Shout’s decision to cram the movie onto a single-layer disc rather than splashing out for a dual-layer BD. It’s a good, not quite great, video transfer.

Audio-wise, the disc is perfectly adequate. Shout presents a 2.0 DTS-HD MA track, which is great for those who prefer two-channel mono, but the track should snap to centre-channel monaural, as God intended, if you turn on your receiver’s Pro-Logic decoding. The sound is plenty robust, and easily reveals limitations of the original mix. Some of the dialogue is overly brittle, and overdubs are both plentiful and painfully evident, though none of that is the fault of this Blu-ray. (In fact, based on what this Blu-ray reveals about the original source material, I’d say a 5.1 remix would be unwise.)

The main extra is a 22-minute documentary featuring new interviews with actors William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, screenwriters Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, and stunt coordinator Billy Burton. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the interviews were recorded separately, so we don’t see any uncomfortable interactions between the still-unhappy Schrader and the rest of the team. The featurette is marred by movie clips taken from an interlaced source that exhibits distracting combing artifacts. However, Shout! Factory is to be commended for doing some original scholarship and getting everyone (well, everyone except Burton, who’s really there to talk about the task of staging the final shootout sequence) to discuss Schrader’s vision and Gould’s alterations. Schrader notes that he originally wanted the movie to open with a scary Red Sovine song, “Go Hide John,” and seems to regard the unexceptional track that was actually chosen for the opening credits as a kind of insult. “It’s full of ’70s wispy sentimentality,” he sneers. I was impressed, most of all, that Jones agreed to show up. Most of his contributions are artful non-answers to questions posed off-camera, but he does stick up for Schrader: “He wrote an original screenplay and I believe attempts were made to improve it. I don’t think any of them were successful.” It’s increasingly rare that special features nod towards discord among filmmakers, so this one is refreshing. (Sadly, it’s not subtitled.) The doc’s production is credited to one Reed Kaplan. Good on you, Reed.

Also included is a rather excellent two-and-a-half-minute trailer, transferred in HD from an enticingly crummy film source, that resists what must have been an overwhelming temptation to show clips from the whorehouse shootout, instead emphasizing the movie’s slow-burn tactics. There’s also an unremarkable 30-second TV spot and three minutes’ worth of radio spots that will be of interest mainly to nostalgia addicts and audio collagists. Finally, a slideshow collects publicity photos, lobby cards, and a striking, Taxi Driver-inspired Japanese poster for the film that Shout! Factory employs as the B-side of the disc’s reversible jacket art. It’s that sort of attention to detail that makes Shout’s releases a favourite of film fans of all stripes.

1. In fact, Schrader’s script originally included a scene in which Charles Rane meets Travis Bickle. At a drive-in movie theater. Where Deep Throat is playing. And you thought Quentin Tarantino had a tendency to disappear up his own asshole!

2. “Part of the audience had gotten up and left in protest,” the Monitor wrote, “but the ones who’d stayed had been whipped into a frenzy by the film’s brutality.”

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