Paul Schrader has synthesized a segregated career writing of the escapades of his disenfranchised, damaged masculine anti-heroes, from disturbed servicemen to aged drug dealers, from pseudo-fascist Japanese playwrights to frigidly isolated lawmen, uncertain shamans to hollowed healers, it’s a compelling, challenging and consequential body of work which reached its critical apotheosis with the bruising, destructive machismo of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, widely considered as one of the greatest American films of the past fifty years. But before Schrader connected his virile, written rage with Scorsese’s variegated direction he cut his teeth in an alternate entry to the ‘return from Nam sub-genre’ which was released as Coppola finally introduced audiences to his oriental heart of darkness and Taxi Driver also hit screens, the final component of a trio being the cult classic Rolling Thunder which has just received a 35th anniversary Blu-Ray release from Studio Canal. Exploitation fans like yours truly have endured a tortured, prolonged delay in getting our medical claws on this desolate snarl of a movie, quite apart from its championing from the likes of Tarantino who not only named his short-lived 1990’s cult movie distribution company after it he also included the film amongst his top
ten twelve all time submission to Sight & Sound back in 2002, but don’t let that put you off as this is a provocative blast of retribution, here’s the opening titles;
Taking its turbulent title from a notoriously indiscriminate and criminal bombing campaign of the Vietnam quagmire Rolling Thunder opens with two veterans returning home to small town Texas after seven long years in a brutal communist prison camp. Major Charley Rane (William Devane) has internalized his suffering to a paralysing numbness, barely registering the growth of his young son from baby to child or the infidelity of his distant wife he prowls his dimly lit home, unable to sleep or re-integrate into civilian life as PTSD afflicted nightmares offer him nothing but insomnia and a glazed detachment from the real world. After being awarded a financial tribute from the town council, a bounty curiously expressed in a suitcase full of silver dollars some local goons are drawn to the scent of criminal opportunity, inducing a home invasion these Viet-Cong surrogates steal the treasure, execute Rane’s son and wife and for good measure shove his hand down the garbage compactor. Mutilated, bereaved and left for dead Rane’s second ordeal prompts a cathartic, lethal purpose – and this is where the film starts to swiftboat into waters marked transgressive – he teams up with local barmaid Linda (Linda Hayes, a blonde version of Karen Black) and fellow veteran Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden (an early sighting of Tommy Lee Jones, he’s almost expressive) to hunt down the scum who have wiped out his family and abrogate a terrible vengeance – it’s not pleasant;
It’s a little strange to revisit a grimy, faintly squalid exploitation piece through the lens of a 21st century digital upgrade, this transfer works by retaining some of the grainy bubbles of the master print which is incorporated with a crystal clear bursts of colour amongst some gloomy interiors, awarding the enterprise a coarse and brittle, sandpapery visual texture that complements the movies grim catenary. William Devane is hewn from the same formidable Mount Rushmore stone as James Coburn, Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin, as stoically impassive and deceptively cool as an obsidian memorial wall, an emotionally void vessel of pure vengeance who barely registers his son or wives casually presented execution whom are barely warm in their graves before he has shacked up with Linda whom he subsequently employs as bait for the lecherous degenerates that will soon face his ruthless wrath. I don’t know what it is about the era but it harks back to the aged sense of a silent ‘man’s’ man, before the action film pyrotechnics of the eighties were punctuated by exploding infrastructure and groan-inducing puns, or the sensitive warriors of the nineties and noughties battled to reassert the equilibrium of the family or to protect a fledgling, sensitive romance, give me these homicidal, morally vacant psychopaths any day of the week rather than those pussy whipped, organic baguette purchasing, exfoliating cream sporting ladymen. It’s the unspoken bond of honor between Rane and his fellow serviceman Vohden in one of the most celebrated moments of super-cool exploitation cinema that really lodges this in the celluloid cranium, when Rane nullifying exclaims that ‘I’ve found them, (sic) the men who killed my son’ to which Vohden immediately replies ‘I’ll just get my gear’ – there is no debate, no question of going to the authorities, the mission is clear as these moral and spiritual vagabonds finally find the violent purpose and distorted moral mission in life that was inculcated in the hellish jungles of South East Asia. Here is the fantastically orchestrated, transgressively cathartic final show-down, so yeah here be spoilers;
As well as providing a paycheck for Schrader Rolling Thunder also signalled the arrival of other talents behind the camera, with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth cutting his teeth with some dimly orchestrated shadowplay before he went on to light the likes of Altered States, Cutters Way, and Blade Runner a few years later. His expressive lighting schemes and Schrader’s submerged iconography elevate the piece above the grunts in the vigilante league table, perhaps the most famous being the Death Wish series, The Exterminator, Straw Dogs and its feminist incarnations such as Handgun or more recentlyThe Brave One, although you could convincingly trace the genre back to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring which of course also birthed Craven’s uncomfortable The Last House on The Left. It’s always been a slightly sour, right-wing aligned strand of movies down from Dirty Harry through repeatable decades of cycles, with a recent UK strain including Harry Brown and the hilariously reactionary, cheap Clerkenwell cocaine cut Outlaw. Rolling Thunder offers much more than mere rabid tabloid attuned umbrage, it has an aura of a Cormac McCarthy short story invested with some rare codes and symbols, giving our ‘hero’ a case full of silver dollars has to be one of the more unusual financial McGuffins that lures in the murderous opponents, in an early scene Rane lovingly explains to his son how when incarcerated in the Viet Cong gulag they secretly stitched together and coveted a face-cloth sized American flag (which simply must have inspired this), even his symbolic castration which prompts his blood spattered spree against his fellow countrymen – and note that he doesn’t return to the jungle to liberate his similarly incarcerated comrades which was the purpose in the whole rehabilitation Nam movies of the eighties such as Rambo, Missing In Action, Strike Commando etc. – he’s at war on home turf which marks this as a treatise on the ambivalent and hostile response that the veterans suffered when they returned from their terrible tours of duty. If you think I’ve over thinking things then just remember that Schrader is one of the more academic scribes out there, the author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer, but for all the submerged academic posturing this film is as entertaining and straightforward as any other exploitation film, mapping to the genres definitions with a swift set-up, a cathartic plot driver, ferocious investigation and excessive execution, all played out in a brutally compact 95 minutes. One of the great 1970’s movies that rises from the critical swamps of its abused collaborators, Rolling Thunder is a renegade, blistering blast.