Rolling Thunder, 1977.
Directed by John Flynn.
Starring William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones and Linda Haynes.
A Vietnam veteran seeks revenge after the murder of his wife and child.
Part revenge tale, part human drama, part commentary on the Vietnam war, and part study on the human psyche, Rolling Thunder is a great example of ‘they don’t like films like this anymore’ and makes a welcome debut to DVD and Blu-Ray.
The story is simple; Charles Rane and Johnny Vohden return from 7 years spent in a Vietnamese POW camp to a hero’s welcome. America has changed – the people, the town, the politics but also their family life, too. Rane’s wife has had an affair with his friend and is leaving with his young boy. His boy, only 18 months when Rane went to war, doesn’t know him and they have 7 years to catch up on. Everyone’s life has moved on except Rane but when his wife and boy are murdered in their home, he only lives for revenge.
The film was written by Paul Schrader and is a classic Schrader story. Like Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull and Hardcore, this film is about men at war with themselves and their struggle to fit into the society in which they live. Rane is a man of few words and even fewer emotions; we are never sure what is going on inside his mind because he won’t let anyone in, like typical men in Schrader’s worlds seldom do. The film is teetering on the edge of explosive violence from the very beginning but it isn’t until the final act that the violence, built up and accumulated over the course of the previous 80 minutes, is shown in full force. Like Taxi Driver, the men whom Rane takes his vengeance out on are a manifestation of the evils encountered throughout his life; yes, they killed his wife and child, but Schrader never wrote a scene where Rane breaks down or expresses pain for his loss because the man who went to Vietnam is not the man who came back and has no pain left to feel. “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you,” he tells one character, “But I’m dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me.”
William Devane is on sensational form as Rane, with subtle emotions and gestures carrying the character into a dark place where he once again feels at home in a world of death and suffering. He wears a hook for most of the film after losing his hand to the thugs who kill his family and his disfigurement becomes both physical and mental as the film unfolds. Tommy Lee Jones has a small role as Vohden and even in this, one of his first big screen appearances, you can see an actor at the top of his profession and a master of nuance and body language; he is stone faced throughout the film but his first smile is when they talk of killing the men for whom Rane is out for revenge and it is a noticeable change of direction for the character in such a small, almost throw-away laugh. The men are of few words, and they use sunglasses to block out the world they have come back to; they hide their eyes from America each time the glasses go on you can almost feel the men boiling over into madness. All they know is death and destruction now, and are happy to turn their back on their hometown in search of more of what they once tried to escape.
Rolling Thunder is a simple story with multiple layers under the surface thanks to the brilliant Schrader and lead performances. It is violent, dark, disturbing, menacing and essential cult film viewing.
Eli Roth on Rolling Thunder…
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