Judge Daryl Loomis pays his bills in silver dollars.
It's like my eyes are open and I'm lookin' at ya, but I'm dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me.
Aside from his great Affliction, I've never been a fan of Paul Schrader as a director. His screenwriting, though, that's a whole different issue. Few writers have ever been able to capture alienation of individuals so acutely and punishingly, whether it's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jesus of Nazareth in The Last Temptation of Christ. Though unheralded and with nowhere near the budget of either of those films, Rolling Thunder, Schrader's follow up script to Taxi Driver, trades on the same themes with a similar coldness, but is also one of the first movies to take on the Vietnam War in a serious way, and it's now available for the first time on disc in any real way on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
After seven years of torture courtesy of the Hanoi Hilton, Major Charles Rane (William Devane, Marathon Man) returns home to his family and friends in San Antonio. Upon his arrival, he is greeted by a giant rally, a bright red Cadillac, and a silver dollar for every day he was in captivity. They make him feel like a hero, but that changes later that night when his son doesn't recognize him and his wife, thinking him dead, fell in love with his best friend. Soon after, some thugs show up at his house wanting those silver dollars and, when he refuses to give them up, they beat him and mutilate his hand. His wife and son come home during the melee and, in order to stop the attack, his son reveals their location. They take the money, kill his family, shoot him, and leave him for dead. Now left with nothing but a hook he's sharpened on a grindstone and a lot of anger, he takes his Caddy and Linda (Linda Haynes, Coffy), a POW groupie who won't leave him alone, down to Mexico to seek revenge.
While I spoke heavily about Schrader and his ability to expertly describe alienation, what we see in Rolling Thunder isn't entirely his vision. It seems that the studio felt that his original script was far too dark, so brought in Heywood Gould (Cocktail) to brighten things up a little bit. It's still an exceedingly dark film, but Gould added in some colorful conversations and a slightly happy ending. Even with those alterations, Warner Bros. still felt it was unmarketable, so sold it off to Samuel Arkoff's exploitation funhouse, American International Pictures. This act sent Rolling Thunder into obscurity and has only recently been rectified, first with a release on Warner Archives and now with this excellent Blu-ray.
It's a real shame that it was in the weeds for so long, because Rolling Thunder is a powerful piece of revenge cinema. The beginning, from the ironic use of Denny Brooks' rendition of the country ballad, "San Antone" (also used to great effect in the equally undervalued The Ninth Configuration), through the big ceremony are the only happy moments in the film. After that, it's complete coldness. The violence comes rarely and in fits, but it's brutal when it comes and the tension that mounts as these moments arrive is terribly unnerving. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is really hard to watch for the sadness and sense of discomfort that it brings.
For those feelings, maybe because of them, Rolling Thunder becomes indispensable viewing. Movies like The Deer Hunter would start coming out the following year, but this is the first fiction film that dealt explicitly with the effects of the Vietnam War on the soldiers who fought in it. Rane is dead inside. He only realizes it as his life falls apart, but he's a crumbled shell of a man. His buddy, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive), who was tortured alongside him, is in even worse shape. While Rane at least tries to adjust to coming home, Vohden has no capacity to do so, and instead just stares dead-eyed into space.
The characters, and the rest of the movie, would be nothing without the incredible performances from Devane and Jones. Both in the first starring roles, they completely embody the soldiers damaged with what we now call PTSD. They make mention of being dead at many points, but when the final firefight begins, the spark of life returns to their eyes, as if killing was what they were born to do. We also have brief appearances from great role players like Dabney Coleman, Tootsie) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke), so there are plenty of excellent performances to go around.
John Flynn (Out for Justice) directs the film with great efficiency, getting right down to business with a setup, a scene of great violence, preparations, and final revenge, with very little bloat. It's a gritty, low budget effort that works exceptionally well within its means. There's little doubt why this is one of Quentin Tarantino's stated favorite films (and the inspiration for the name of his video distribution company), but it isn't the exploitative affair that some of them are. It certainly has its moments, but there is too much going on to diminish it that way. Flynn might not make it easy to watch people crumbling before our eyes, but it's one of the finest pieces of revenge cinema you're ever likely to see.
Shout! Factory delivers a great looking Blu-ray for Rolling Thunder. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer is sharp and crisp with great colors and without a trace of damage to the print, all while still maintaining the gritty look and feel the film needs. The sound is fine, as well. Despite being a simple mono mix, there is a lot of punch and dynamic range in the channel. Dialog is always clear and the sound effects, especially during the explosive climax, are very strong.
Extras are slight on the disc, however. The only substantial supplement is a twenty minute series of interviews with Devane, Jones, Schrader, and Gould. They explain various aspects of the film, from the writing to the characters to the production. It's quite interesting; I wish there was more of it. Otherwise, it's just a trailer and a TV spot, which is a little disappointing.
Rolling Thunder is a cold, brutal, unforgiving film that isn't a whole lot of fun to watch. It's also a fantastic, deeply underrated film that, in many ways, is every bit as good as anything Paul Schrader has written. It's not the smoothest, most polished movie ever made, but with the unflinchingly mean story and harrowing performances from Devane and Jones, Rolling Thunder is a phenomenal ride. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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