Watch the Perfectly Constructed, Springsteen-Blessed Sundance Short Film Winner “Thunder Road”

Jim Cummings's twelve-minute film is a masterpiece of characterization.

In October 2015, filmmaker Jim Cummings made a short movie called Thunder Road. It’s about a police officer who speaks at his mother’s funeral and processes his grief in excruciating real time. It ended up at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film, and it’s now streaming through Vimeo; you can check it out below.

As you might have guessed from the short’s title, the Bruce Springsteen song that kicks off Born to Run is at the center of the film. As IndieWire reports, Cummings paid a small licensing fee to allow the film to make the festival circuit with the song intact, but the film’s success brought with it a steeper financial burden when Cummings decided to screen the film online—to the tune of an estimated $50,000. The filmmaker wrote an open letter to The Boss, who, in a somewhat unsurprising twist, gave Cummings license to use “Thunder Road” without having to pay for it.

Which turned out to be a boon for the rest of us. Cummings’ short film—which he wrote, directed, and stars in—deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience. It was shot in a single take, and in its twelve minutes, the films moves from muted grief to profound vulnerability to mumblecore mopiness to laugh-out-loud slapstick with all of the grace its slow camera tracking would imply.

Cummings’ performance as the mourning officer is particularly strong. His meticulously written and performed eulogy is uncomfortably realistic, punctuated by inappropriate pauses, nervous asides, and the kinds of monological detours we find ourselves in when we’re at a loss for words but decorum demands that we keep speaking.

The pacing, too, is perfect. When Cummings takes us into comedy, it almost feels offensive, as if the sudden jokiness invalidates the sadness that we’ve already seen. But the strength of the performance carries us through; it feels perfectly natural, and it makes the film’s final shot of Cummings in the back of the church recovering from his speech that much more complicated.

Like the song that gives it its title and mid-plot thrust, Thunder Road is an elegantly constructed work of pop art, just as ready to make you smile as it is to break your heart.

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