In 1976 Paul Schrader authored Taxi Driver, cinema’s great coming home story about ‘Nam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who returns from duty to an atrophying city submersed in sewage, where life-size rats in pimp masks are selling underage girls to yuppie degenerates. New York has become the capital of decadence – a sleaze pit where the best men are those who’ll turn a blind eye to the corruption. In 1977 Schrader (along with co-writer Heywood Gould) re-imagined this concept for the exploitation crowd, but Rolling Thunder is much more than just a straightforward revenger. In fact, the film is an effectively slow-burn thriller, arguably deeper than Taxi Driver, and its odd sense of melancholia struck me as unusual and refreshing. The central plot follows ex-soldier Charles Rane (William Devane), who returns from service only to discover that his wife has taken up with another man. He appears completely unruffled by the news, but beneath his placid eyes we understand that Rane suppresses a simmering rage, and flashbacks to a P.O.W. camp suggest that the full reality of war has not yet caught up with him. Devane skillfully embodies the mindset of a shellshocked man, not yet ready to re-enter the world but suddenly lumbered with the responsibility of a child and the wife who didn’t wait.
There’s a particularly disturbing scene where Rane instructs his wife’s lover, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), to reenact the torture methods used by Vietnamese soldiers, demanding to be tied up and have his arms wrenched from their sockets. It’s almost as if the man is punishing himself for his wife’s adultery, but the darker implication is that he might miss the pain (“You learn to love the rope.”) Rane’s war buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) is an equally compelling presence. A sad, silent man, he appears completely detached from the friends and family he has returned to, and in his hangdog eyes I see nothing but suffering. There’s only so long that these men can remain buttoned up. After 40-odd minutes of character development the revenge plot kicks into gear, initiated when a ragtag group of thugs ransack Rane’s home in search of his war treasures. They pin the man down and beat him, but the violence doesn’t provoke any reaction. The action here is especially impactful for its clumsy choreography and leaning toward naturalism – there’s no background music to the scene, and the punches aren’t amplified in post-production (most exploitation movies employ the same *thwack* of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu cartoons). Actually, the scene is oddly un-cinematic. It just hurts, plain and simple.
Naturally Rane’s family are slaughtered, but he survives with a bullet in the gut and his right arm mangled by the garbage disposal unit. This is where the film reveals its exploitation sensibility, with achingly cool shots of Rane wearing shades and sharpening his claw – or using it to load the 6-inch revolver strapped to his waist. Along with cute waitress Linda (Linda Haynes, who reminds me of a young Charlize Theron), Rane begins to track down the goons who killed his little boy, becoming increasingly violent as he falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of revenge. The film does lose some of its focus here, as the plot begins to demand a certain degree of continuity which is just absent from the screenplay – such as how Rane manages to track his targets to such specific locations. There are plenty of interrogation scenes, but Schrader and director John Flynn are more concerned the psychological implication of the journey, rather than making any sense of it. Eventually Rane tracks down the gang’s head honcho, Texan (James Best, from TV’s Dukes Of Hazard), to an out-of-town whorehouse, and what follows is one of the best gunfights in 70’s cinema.
It’s especially interesting to observe Vohden here, who Rane recruits to help wreak his vengeance. In the film’s final act we see him actively turned on by the violence, suddenly instilled with a purpose outside of chopping potatoes and fixing up the house. Even when we see him with a hooker there’s not the slightest sign of a pulse from the man – fighting is all he knows now, and his willingness to be consumed by it, to kill or be killed, is upsetting and disturbing. The final blowout is effectively lean and bloody, unleashing an energy that Flynn has been carefully building over the previous half hour. The slick camerawork and economic editing really plant us into the middle of the gunfight, and it’s incredibly entertaining to watch the carnage unfold. Flynn wisely keeps his camera trained on the actors, ensuring that we feel the emotional beat behind each gunshot. This is what separates Rolling Thunder from its contemporaries – that acute sense of character, exploration of psychology and complete refusal to answer the complex questions their actions present. This was a film which engaged me on a much more personal level than expected, and its payoff was all the more rewarding for that fact.
The Blu-Ray is pretty solid, and although there appears to be some permanent damage to the print, which occasionally displays grain and dirt specks, the picture itself is clean enough to remain watchable and ensure that this is the best quality version of Rolling Thunder on the market – in fact, the grain actually complements the film’s exploitation feel. The extras are slim but fun, with an original TV spot, theatrical trailer (plus Eli Roth commentary, taken from Trailers From Hell) and Linda Haynes interview rounding out the package. It’s a solid effort, and well worth picking up.
Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
Runtime: 95 min