Tuesday, May 13, 2003

When it Rains it Pours: Rolling Thunder (1977)

After spending seven years inside of a hellish North Vietnamese prison camp, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns to San Antonio, Texas, hoping to get his life back in order. Rane is given a hero’s welcome and is offered a brand new red Cadillac and a couple thousand silver dollars for his patriotic commitment. Unfortunately, the hero’s welcome doesn’t extend to his home life. On the first night of his return, Rane’s wife informs him that she’s been having an affair and that she wants a divorce. The scene is stark and uncomfortable to watch as the camera focuses in on Rane quietly smoking a cigarette and drinking a can of beer as he solemnly listens to his estranged wife. Although the news is painful and shocking, Rane is no stranger to suffering. All those years as a P.O.W. have burned itself deep within him. He’s become a friend to pain; a martyr in search of the next masochistic abasement. Realizing that his marriage no longer exists, Rane moves into a shed in the backyard and spends his days exercising and getting to know his son, who was only a few months old when Rane left for Vietnam. He also spends a lot of time brooding on his time in captivity. Not overcoming the nightmares, mind you. Just brooding on them. Rane is too far gone and wound too tight to be liberated from his torture-fueled memories. But you do get the feeling that he wants some peace. Of course, for a man like Major Rane, peace is a luxury that is far beyond his price range. Upon returning home one afternoon, Rane finds a group of good ol’ boys in his house. They’ve come for the silver dollars. Rane refuses to give up the money and is subsequently beaten. And when the beatings don’t make him talk, the thieves resort to torture (they shove Rane’s right hand down the garbage disposal, grinding it to a bloody pulp). Nearly dead from the torture, Rane still refuses to speak. But when his wife and son return home, the boy reveals where the silver dollars are. Then the nightmare really starts to cook. The thieves shoot Rane, his wife, and the boy, leaving them all for dead. But Rane survives the horrible crime and vows vengeance. Equipped with a metal claw for a right hand, Rane enlists the help of a young woman (Linda Haynes) who wore his dog tags while he was incarcerated and who is a self-described Major Charles Rane groupie, and the two of them cruise through Texas and Mexico hunting down the killers. Eventually Rane reunites with his old friend and fellow P.O.W. Johnny Vohden (played by an excitable Tommy Lee Jones in one of his first roles) to help him on his crusade. Vohden, whose return to civilian life has also been difficult, eagerly accepts the invitation. Like two desperate outlaws looking for one last shotgun blast of redemptive glory, Rane and Vohden journey to a Mexican whorehouse to slaughter their way into Heaven.

Written by Paul Schrader, fresh off his work on Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, and crime writer Heywood Gould, Rolling Thunder traverses much of the same thematic ground as the earlier film, albeit in a more straight-forward B-movie fashion. John Flynn’s direction is sometimes crude and strictly utilitarian. But the film nevertheless harbors moments of great visceral power and complexity. William Devane is superb as the taciturn time bomb Major Rane. There is a disquieting calm about his performance, recalling less Robert De Niro’s role of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and more like Martin Sheen’s low-key haunted Captain Willard from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. More than just a retread of Schrader’s work on Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder above all quotes the films of Sam Peckinpah. Whether it’s the perceptive reconfiguration of the American action-hero as a Puritanical kill-crazy avenger, the use of Mexico as a symbol for lawlessness and moral chaos, or the portrayal of the climatic shootout as a holy soul-cleansing ritual and philosophical confirmation that life is indeed a Nietzschean struggle beyond good and evil -– Peckinpah’s ruthless stamp is all over this equally brutal and shattering film. It may not be a masterpiece, but Rolling Thunder is definitely in my top ten favorite action films of all time.

Rolling Thunder is currently not available on DVD, but it was issued on VHS by the now-defunct Vestron Video label. Considering that Quentin Tarantino named his video label after the film, it would seem likely that he would put it out. So far he hasn’t. Regardless, it’s definitely worth hunting down.

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