For the first twenty minutes of its running time, the audience could be forgiven for thinking that Rolling Thunder was another painful, dreadfully high-minded movie about shell-shocked Vietnam veterans struggling to return to civilian life. But with a shocking act of violence to end its first act, the film reveals itself to be a brutal revenge tale that will leave as many psychological scars as physical ones.

Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home to Texas after spending several years as a prisoner of war. Traumatized by his war experience, he hides beneath an emotionless exterior and ever-present sunglasses. In the years that he has been gone, his wife (Lisa Richards) has moved on to another man whom she intends to marry and his son (Jordan Gerler) regards him as a stranger, looking up to his mother’s boyfriend, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), as a father figure. All of these revelations fail to draw much of an external reaction from Rane, but with a script co-written by Paul Schrader, you can be sure that the internal rage is rising.

Rane tries half-heartedly to connect with his son, while slowly growing accustomed to the idea of getting a divorce. He scares the hell out of Cliff in a stunning scene where he demonstrates one of the torture techniques used on him, forcing Cliff to play the part of the torturer. He goes through the motions at public appearances where he’s lauded as a hero, spouting canned thank you speeches of no depth, that make everyone else feel good about honoring him. At one of these appearances, he meets Linda (Linda Haynes), a pretty young woman who built up a fantasy romance between the two of them while he was a P.O.W. She presents him with a case of silver dollars as a gift from a local department store for his service.

Rane comes home one day to find Automatic Slim (Luke Askew), a thug with the freakiest eyes this side of Jeff Fahey, and three other low-rent criminals waiting for him. They want the case of silver dollars and when threats don’t work, they proceed to beat him for the information. What they don’t realize is the effect that Rane’s ordeal has had on him. A man who has learned to accept torture and turn it into a game of wills that he refuses to lose, he is also a man who needs an enemy. He is willing to let them torture him, not because he cares about the silver dollars, but because he wants them to be his new enemy. Even when they shove his hand into a running garbage disposal, Rane refuses to talk, biding his time until he has the opportunity to strike back. His plans go awry when his wife and son walk in to the scene. His son immediately shows the men where the coins are, at which point the men shoot the three of them. His wife and son are killed but Rane survives, minus a hand. After a period of recuperation, he’s ready to go back to war.

Rolling Thunder is the rare film that delves into the severely damaged psyche of someone who is obsessed with revenge. What is unique and fascinating about this is that Rane, the hero, is basically portrayed as psychotic. This is shown in Devane’s intensely insular and cold performance. He only allows an occasional flicker of humanity in the early scenes, before he disappears completely, becoming an animal that only has one purpose: to kill. Even worse than the complete loss of his humanity is the way he takes advantage of Linda’s feelings for him, using her to find the men he wants dead. By the end of the film, even though she comes away physically unharmed, Linda is as much a casualty of Rane’s vengeance as the men involved in the murder of his family.

John Flynn directs the film’s slow-boil sensibility and bursts of violence with economy, cutting away all the fat. Some have complained that the film is simplistic and exploitative, taking advantage of the psychological damage that Vietnam veterans suffered. To a certain extent, they have a point. The film was intended, first and foremost, as an exploitation film. But Flynn’s no-nonsense handling of the script by Schrader and Heywood Gould elevates it to a painful personal drama with the required exploitable elements of nudity and excessive violence thrown in. Thanks to their efforts and Devane’s chilling performance, the film becomes a haunting tale about the dehumanizing effects of war and revenge.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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