Based one of the many violent scripts Paul Schrader penned during his breakthrough period (Heywood Gould rewrote the screenplay), Rolling Thunder concerns Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a Vietnam vet who returns home to Texas after years in P.O.W. captivity. Numbed by torture, Rane has difficulty reintegrating into normal life, a problem exacerbated by the fact that his son doesn’t remember him and by the fact that his wife, who thought Rane was dead, is now engaged to another man. Thus, when thugs murder Rane’s family and mutilate him, Rane focuses his anger into a bloody revenge mission. Considering that Rane also has a hook for a hand throughout most of the movie, this is awfully pulpy stuff. Had Rolling Thunder been produced by, say, Roger Corman instead of Lawrence Gordon—who was just beginning a long career making smart, big-budget action flicks—the film could have become gruesome and sleazy.
Instead, Gordon recruited sophisticated collaborators including director John Flynn, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and composer Barry DeVorzon, and the team created a thriller of unusual restraint. Rolling Thunder is a character-driven slow burn, because the film spends as much time depicting the hero’s devastated mental state as it does showcasing his lethal force. So, while generating tension is always the priority—witness several bloody brawls, as well as the unforgettable scene in which bad guys jam Rane’s hand into a kitchen-sink garbage disposal—Gordon’s team also makes room for nuance.
For instance, the visual style that Cronenweth employs, which anticipates the tasty mixture of deep shadows and piercing beams of light that he later brought to Blade Runner (1982), is a strong presence—it’s as if the movie’s characters swim through an ocean of danger and menace. Furthermore, the Gould/Schrader script features terse dialogue exchanges that reflect Rane’s anguished mindset.
Playing one of his few leading roles in a big theatrical feature, Devane is perfect casting. With his downturned mouth and heavy brow, he looks bitter even when he’s smiling, so once his eyes are hidden behind the aviator glasses he wears in many scenes, he seems believably dangerous; the sight of him in full bloodthirsty flight, a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and a hook in place of the other, is hard to shake.
Flynn surrounds Devane with equally well-chosen supporting players. Linda Haynes is naturalistic and tough as a waitress who becomes Rane’s travelling companion; reliable figures including Luke Askew, James Best, and Dabney Coleman infuse small roles with texture; and Tommy Lee Jones nearly steals the movie with his icy performance as Rane’s trigger-happy sidekick. In fact, Jones’ chilling delivery of the line “I’m going to kill a bunch of people” epitomizes the film’s clinical aesthetic, just like the priceless scene of Jones enduring inane family-room chatter crystallizes why some vets find it impossible to adjust once they’re “back in the world.” (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
Rolling Thunder: GROOVY