What’s it about?
Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns from years as a prisoner in Vietnam to find that his world has changed in the seven years he’s been away. The 18 month old son he left barely knows him and his wife has fallen for another man. Rane is welcomed home with open arms, but a criminal gang hears of the 2,526 silver dollars given to him by a local business – one for every day imprisoned – the gang steals Rane’s money, cuts off his hand, and murders his wife and child. Later, a recovered Rane goes on the road to find and kill the gang.
Rolling Thunder is essentially two films for the price of one. For fifty minutes it’s about Rane trying to fit himself back into life in his home town, and reintroduce himself to his son, with varying success. I really liked this side of the film, as it is where Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould’s screenplay is most effective. Rane’s detachment, his reluctance to be the local hero and his attempts to reconnect are all beautifully written, and effectively played by William Devane, and while he doesn’t react angrily to his wife when she tells him she has found someone else, the film introduces a troubling side to Rane when he makes his wife’s new boyfriend (Lawrason Driscoll) tie him up so he can demonstrate how he survived the torture he was subjected to in the prison camp. Also in this first half, Rane begins to forge a tentative bond with a local waitress (Linda Haynes) who presented him with the silver dollars. Both Devane and Haynes are good here, and this narrative of the returning soldier begins to develop interestingly.
Sadly, much of this is thrown out of the window for the film’s back half, which is the revenge narrative. The same detachment that Devane put across so well and that served the first half so perfectly creates a problem here, because without an outward hunger, without passion, the importance of the revenge being sought is rather undermined. That said, the consistently dark tone works well, it sets the film apart from many campier and more over the top revenge films that came out of the 1970s (I LOVE Thriller: A Cruel Picture, but it definitely has cartoony moments, which can’t be said of this film). I just wish it was bit weightier, both in terms of making us feel like the main character desperately NEEDS vengeance, and in terms of screentime.
Much of the second half of the film sees Rane and his waitress friend Linda on a roadtrip looking for the guys who killed his family (in a manner that seems a bit disconnected to me, I was sometimes a bit lost as to how they found people from stop to stop). This stuff is fine, but there’s a sense that the film is always skirting around the main point. By the time Devane and his fellow former prisoner Tommy Lee Jones mount up, there are only ten minutes of the film left. For me a vengeance film is about going along with a character whose hunger for vengeance you share, and about the catharsis that comes when it’s complete. For me, the second half of Rolling Thunder doesn’t really work in that respect. What it could really do with is an extra fifteen minutes to beef up the second half, take the focus off Rane’s relationship with Linda for a while (or involve her more) and make the revenge feel more important.
How’s the picture and sound?
This is, almost without question, likely to be the best you have ever or will ever see Rolling Thunder look. The picture still has its share of flaws though; dark scenes are very grainy, and there are quite a few spots of print damage, it’s minor; speckles, the odd line, mostly during the opening credits, but still very present. Detail is good, but not quite up to the standards of the best catalogue Blu Ray releases I’ve seen. Still, with what was likely available to work with, and with a 35 year old film, it’s pretty impressive. Sound is also good, with dialogue and sound effects both coming through loud, clear and distinct.
A surprisingly generous package for a reasonably obscure film. William Devane, sadly, is absent, and director John Flynn passed away in 2007, but co-star Linda Haynes contributes a ten minute interview, which begins with how she got into the business before covering Rolling Thunder itself.
Hostel director Eli Roth provides commentary for Rolling Thunder’s trailer, in a feature originally made for Joe Dante’s great website Trailers From Hell. It’s an interesting and enthusiastic piece, but over too soon. A trailer and a TV spot round out the video extras.
Co-screenwriter (well, re-writer) Heywood Gould provides a commentary, moderated by Roy Frumkes (who is something of a grindhouse historian, and literally wrote the book on Last House on the Left). Gould is candid, engaging and seems to have a good memory. It would be great, given what Gould says, to hear Schrader’s side of the story. Gould and Frumkes keep the track moving.
It’s shame I can’t recommend the whole of Rolling Thunder more highly, because the first half is outstanding. For me, the shift from straight coming home drama to revenge movie never quite worked or felt organic, despite that fact that William Devane is excellent throughout the film, and director John Flynn’s simple action scenes pack a punch. This is certainly a good film, but for me it’s haunted by the spectre of the great film it might have been. However, the double play Blu Ray and DVD makes for a strong package.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Monday 30th January on Double Play format.