Rolling Thunder is a lean, mean revenge thriller that could have only been made in the 1970s. It’s 1973, to be exact, and Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has recently returned to San Antonio after several years in a Viet Cong prison camp. Greeted with a hero’s welcome, Rane has little use for his neighbors’ praise, which he appears to regard (correctly) as an almost poignantly inadequate expression of collective survivor’s guilt. Rane, along with his friend and fellow veteran Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), inhabits the film with a calm pragmatism that might be disconcerting for viewers accustomed to cinema’s more overheated depictions of soldiers coming home. The men don’t appear to resent the friends and family who’re blessedly ignorant of the atrocities they experienced abroad, but the soldiers no longer possess the facilities necessary to uphold basic social conventions such as feigning gratitude or excitement either. And so we watch these men, for a long while, as they quietly invest every superficially calm moment with a foreboding undertow of unreleased violence.
On paper, Rolling Thunder is a conventionally macho potboiler that, in the vein of many 1970s films, dresses up a Death Wish scenario with token nods to the politically charged despair that followed in the wake of the Vietnam War, and even people who only casually attend movies will probably assume early on that Rane’s going to kill several people before the end of the film. But Devane and Jones’s performances, under John Flynn’s skilled, understated direction, display a refreshing empathy for the soldiers’ torment.
Co-writer and original scenarist Paul Schrader was disappointed with the final film, which he claims is characterized by “wispy 1970s sentimentality.” True, but Flynn and co-writer Heywood Gould’s sentimentality coaxes out a human dimension that lends the violence an element of spontaneity that’s truly upsetting. Schrader’s a brilliant film critic, but many of his own films, either as screenwriter or director (his collaborations with Scorsese are partially an exception) are mechanically theoretical essays on depravity that judge their characters while milking them for most of their sensationalistic possibilities. Rolling Thunder liberates Schrader from his worst tendencies.
Still though, Rolling Thunder is primarily a genre movie in which a man with a hook for an arm must commence in balancing the existential ledger of whoop-ass in his favor. There are the expected bits (a baddie gets hooked in the nuts, another baddie gets his hand pinned to a table) as well as a well staged but obligatory shootout, which resembles a scaled-down version of The Wild Bunch’s climax—an homage that Schrader acknowledges. There’s also a vastly unconvincing suggestion of emotional closure at the end, a beat that Flynn thankfully refuses to emphasize too much. Essentially a liberal vigilante film that’s rife with all the contradictions that description implies, Rolling Thunder has a pared, weirdly principled grace that still packs a punch.
The image is soft, at times, but this is probably a reflection of how the film is meant to look. Colors are generally clean and varied, image detail is strong, and the grain texture is appropriate. The mono track doesn’t boast much dimension or density, but this is also probably true to the film’s original presentation. Diegetic and non-diegetic effects are balanced throughout, and there’s no white noise.
The slim making-of featurette contains unusually frank interviews with screenwriters Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould as well as actors William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. Devane appears to favor the sentimentality that Gould contributed, while Jones was more taken with Schrader’s darker, more emotionally abstract and violent original draft. This is the rare supplement of its kind that actually leaves you wanting more, so it’s regrettable that the men didn’t record a full audio commentary. Also included are the theatrical trailer and assorted radio and TV spots.
Not a game-changer as Blu-ray refurbishings go, but it’s always a pleasure to revisit one of American cinema’s more nuanced hook-armed avengers.