Sunday, January 3, 2010
Rolling Thunder (1977, John Flynn)
The poster of Rolling Thunder promises "another shattering experience from the author of Taxi Driver and this is simply not true. The only way the experience could be shattering is if you had never seen Taxi Driver, and if you didn't know the same author had written both of them it'd be easier to dismiss this one as a mere rip-off. The story structure is identical; a long character study of mounting alienation culminating in a bloodbath. Unlike the implied past of Travis Bickle's Viet Cong flag hanging in his urban apartment, William Devane's former Vietnam POW status is the explicit catalyst for everything. The two would get along famously, except Bickle might be jealous of Devane's local popularity and success with the ladies.
Devane's Charles Rayne is whom De Niro's Travis Bickle might have been, once, and the story beginning in 1973 suggests that Schraeder developed the story of Rolling Thunder in the process of inventing Taxi Driver. The co-screenplay credit with Heywood Gould (and separate story credit for Schraeder) suggests that the story was sold after Taxi Driver's success suddenly made the world safe for alienated loner action movies. Ironically 20th Century Fox pawned the finished film off to xploitation distributors American International Pictures over concerns of excessive violence, yet John Flynn's camera doesn't have nearly as much blood to wipe off by the end. If Schraeder had waited another ten years before making the sale, or maybe even five, he could have seen his basic story mutilated into yet another generic post-Rambo Veteran-turned-vigilante actioner by Cannon Films or equivalent sleazy studio - way sleazier than AIP.
Paul Schrader has too much respect for his characters to make Rolling Thunder a dumb, fun movie. The deliberate silence of William Devane's Charles Rayne (Rain? Thunder?) relegates him to a reflection of those around him, embodied literally by his mirrored sunglasses which are rarely removed. Late in the story he admits he regards himself as a man who died sometime in Vietnam; returning home as a ghost to an old life no longer familiar or accessible. Upon realizing his wife and child no longer relate to him and will soon abandon him, he reacts with total indifference. The pivotal scene when they're murdered at home before his eyes happens at such a dreamlike pace that I didn't realize until later how he basically lets it happen by not telling the robbers where to find his Veteran's fund money. This may be the only vigilante film in which the vigilante seems to passive-aggressively allow a transformative tragedy to befall him, and it's really creepy in retrospect. He doesn't care about losing his hand, either. In stark opposition to Taxi Driver, whatever thought process driving Devane is kept secret from the poetry of voiceover narration.
Reflected the most in Devane's sunglasses are the obscure Linda Haynes as his would-be girlfriend and a very very young Tommy Lee Jones as his fellow returning POW. Haynes' character is kind of ridiculous, first throwing herself at Devane and then allowing herself to be used repeatedly as bait when he starts tracking down his family's killers. Jones is introduced in the first scene and gives the impression in a few short minutes with his wife that his story would be a lot more interesting to follow. When he reappears at the very end to help Devane enact revenge (at the drop of a hat, humorously) and we get a glimpse of the rest of his home life, the suspicion is confirmed. Schrader has a real knack for the nuances of conservative middle class language even in lesser works like Hardcore; the twangy lines about American and foreign television parts overheard at Jones' dinner table are the most memorable in the whole film.
As John Rambo once said of being a soldier, "you can't turn it off." Rolling Thunder is a film about veterans which respects that, but without empathy. There's zero entertainment value in Devane's methodical revenge, only a kind of perverse sadness. When Tommy Lee Jones decides to tag along in the final act and gets really cavalier about the idea, I realized the absurdity of the Veteran-Vigilante subgenre and felt deep shame as a civilian for projecting my bloodlust onto such a fantasy. Rolling Thunder is, perhaps accidentally, an anti-revenge-movie revenge movie.