Rolling Thunder is A-List genre cinema for Z-List fleapits – in other words, a work of Grindhouse art – as Vietnam veteran William Devane seeks revenge for the murder of his wife and son.
If ever there was a film worth seeing for fans of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse films then John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder must be it. This 1970s exploitation flick, which on its original screening to studio executives was met with such a negative reaction it manifested itself in audience members physically abusing the studio personnel present, finds a hook-handed avenger meting out calculated and bloody retribution on the gang that murdered his wife and son. It is graphic, uncompromising and brutal while its age and budget ensures a suitably grainy and scratch-marked master print.
Quentin Tarantino rates the film among his favourites. One of his companies, Rolling Thunder Pictures, that specialised in re-releasing cult films, was named after the movie. It follows Major Charles Rane (William Devane) who returns to America following eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp. He arrives home to a hero’s welcome with his friend John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), who was imprisoned and tortured along with Rane. Both men still suffer the mental scars of years of incarceration. Rane believes he is a walking dead man; dead the day he was taken prisoner. But things aren’t any easier at home – his wife is leaving him while his son, who he adores, fails to remember his father. One day, a gang of thieves storm the house looking for the 2,555 silver dollars Rane was presented with by his home town on his return to America. But the emotionally distant Rane cares little about the gang’s advances, refusing to tell them where the silver dollars are even when they mangle his hand in the garbage disposal unit. But Rane’s wife and son return home and, in an attempt to stop the torture, tell the thieves what they want to know. Once they have the silver dollars they shoot the family, leaving them for dead. But they don’t count on Rane surviving.
Rolling Thunder slow-burns its way to the climax you know is coming but its pace gives the audience time to come to terms with the lasting mental dysfunction caused by Rane’s years of imprisonment. It is perhaps most devastatingly tangible when the thieves try to force Rane to reveal his hiding place of the silver dollars. They violently beat the ex-soldier but his secret remains intact. Even when they put his hand in the food disposal unit, his lips stay sealed. As his ordeal is taking place his mind drifts back to the prisoner of war camp and the torture he suffered, the emotional shutdown he perfected in Vietnam working to distance himself from his tormentor’s brutal punishment.
Actor William Devane doesn’t have to draw on any theatrical training he might have had for the role of Rane, it is all passivity and blank expression. His limited dialogue also makes the role one of the least tasking of the actor’s career but Devane has an everyman quality about him that engages the audience to this emotionally detached man’s vendetta. There is therefore more depth to the vengeance than mere retribution for the murder of wife and son.
But Rolling Thunder is ultimately about a man driven over the edge who finds catharsis in the very brutality that deadened his soul. Like all good revenge films we are behind the protagonist’s plight because he or she is intent on putting right a wrong meted out on them. We buy the ticket to see the villain’s comeuppance and Rolling Thunder ensures we get what we paid for. It is grizzled and gritty, hard-nosed and vicious with a workmanlike pace that boils the suspense into a frenzied finale featuring hookers, shotguns and barroom brawling. Rolling Thunder is A-List genre cinema for Z-List fleapits – in other words, a work of Grindhouse art.
Directed by: John Flynn
Written by: Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould
Starring: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes, James Best, Dabney Coleman, Luke Askew
Released: 1977 / Genre: Thriller/Revenge / Country: USA / IMDB