BLIND SPOT REVIEW #3: Rolling Thunder

Going back and seeing the movies I should have seen or always wanted to see, but missed.


How did it get to my "blind spot?"    Like so many movies that are making it into this Blind Spot series, Rolling Thunder is simply before my time as a kid born in 1979.  It never crossed my radar outside of knowing it was a young Tommy Lee Jones appearance until "Movies in the Blind Spot" leader and fellow blogger Tim Day ran into it on Netflix.  I had to give it a try after hearing more about it.

Why should it be seen?    Vietnam-related movies have been and always will be a fascinating time period and subgenre of films.  No matter the trend of pro-war or anti-war, this country will never see a war as publicly and emotional caustic and controversial as that one.  The multitude of movies connected to Vietnam will always be just a tip of the iceberg of the thousands of stories related to that tumultuous era.

Background:     Directed by John Flynn (Defiance, Lock UpOut for Justice), Rolling Thunder comes from an original story written by then up-and-coming Hollywood writer Paul Schrader, who was just coming off his transcendent Taxi Driver success.  Partnering with Heywood Gould, Schrader plots a violent crime-soaked story of disillusioned and returning Vietnam veterans in San Antonio, Texas who take on local outlaws.  In 1977, Rolling Thunder made Gene Siskel's year-end "10 Best" list at #10.   It also commonly gets mentioned often as one of Quentin Tarantino's many cult favorites.

Future prime time soap star William Devane plays Major Charlie Rane coming home from overseas with his friends and commanding officer (Dabney Coleman) in 1973.  Granted a shiny new Cadillac convertible and a sizable award of silver dollars, he's given a hero's welcome, but not all is the same.  For seven years of his tour of duty, Rane was a POW subjected to torture and captivity.  He may come home to rewards, but he also comes home to a wife (Lisa Blake Richards) who's fallen for another man, a local cop named Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), a young son who doesn't remember him, and an empty heart.

Finding it hard to transition back to civilian life, the emotionally dead Rane gets confronted by four local thugs, led by "The Texan" (future Dukes of Hazzard regular James Best) and "Automatic Slim" (Easy Rider's Luke Askew), who break into his home looking for his silver dollar reward money.  When Charlie doesn't cooperate, they murder his wife and son, mangle his hand, and leave him for dead.

After recovering and seeking some solace with a local groupie girl Linda (Brubaker and Coffy star Linda Haynes), Rane soon plots revenge and retribution.  He and a reluctant Linda begin to track down the perpetrators.  Soon, with an assist from Cliff and Sergeant John Vohdon (dashing young Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones), one of his fellow vets that would rather re-enlist than stay home, Charlie dives deeper and thicker into the seedy and ugly Tex-Mex underworld looking for The Texan and Automatic Slim.

Reaction:  THREE STARS-- As a child of the 80's who really only remembers William Devane as the shark-toothed smile on Knots Landing episodes I shouldn't have been watching under the age of 10, I forgot how engaging he can be as an actor.  The quiet and coiled menace of his dark-eyed stare and his tone of voice is supremely effective.  With this role being far less charismatic than the old Greg Sumner soap character he's known for, Devane holds your attention and convinces you of his strong intensity during every opportunity within Rolling Thunder.  

People point to the infancy of Tommy Lee Jones's career with this film, but this is Devane's spotlight all the way.  Still, my favorite scene is watching Devane nearly wordlessly convincing Jones to join him again in battle.  "I'll just get my gear" and "let's go clean them up" is all Jones had to say in return and all he needed to say.  Without extra exposition or a lengthy back story, that immediate mood shift and call to action speaks volumes to the many unseen scraps those two likely shared during the war.  Their team-up in the firefight finale is very good.

With its dusty setting and ensemble of snap-button western shirts, Rolling Thunder suits its 1970's setting in every detail.  I really enjoyed the movie's simple sense of atmosphere from most of the scenes clearly being shot on location in existing homes, bars, motels, cattle yards, whorehouses, and more.  Flynn gave the film a real domestic and intimate feel with that approach and omitted what would have been a cheesy musical score of cues, by sticking with the location ambiance.  The bigger messages of Rolling Thunder

of post-traumatic stress syndrome, victims of torture, displaced returning veterans, and the message sent by a man in uniform are all still present symbolically, but shrewdly weaved underneath a tidy revenge story that entertains.  It's a good little flick and worth 90-something minutes on your Netflix queue.

LESSON #1: THE DISCONNECT FOR VETERANS RETURNING HOME AFTER YEARS OF SERVICE-- If you go back and ask any friend or family member of any war veteran, no matter the nation or the war, even going back centuries to B.C., they will tell you about post-traumatic stress disorder, which we label today at PTSD.  In the proverbial American consciousness, the public discord over the Vietnam War was likely the war that finally gave this condition a name and a cause.  Soldiers have always had it, but it finally got a name and a label.  For men and women who have served for years at a time, it is incredibly difficult to transition back to civilian society.  They carry horrors and traumas that they cannot un-see or un-feel.  It takes time and, sadly, some never come back.

LESSON #2: THE EMOTIONAL VOID FOUND IN VICTIMS OF TORTURE-- Taking Lesson #1 a step further, the PTSD for soldiers who were prisoners of war is an entirely new level to the void and disconnect found in veterans.  Combine the horrors of war with the soul-crushing institutionalization of prison and torture.  Devane's Charlie gives Cliff a little primer on how he handled his time and made it.  His answer was that he learned to love it.  When those emotions or visuals trigger Charlie, either alone or around others, he simply shuts down because that's what worked for him to make it through the POW time he endured.

LESSON #3: DON'T LEAVE A GUY FOR DEAD WITHOUT LEAVING HIM DEAD-- Now let's get to the fun part.  This lesson is especially true if the guy you supposedly leave for dead is a trained soldier and killer with an axe (well, metal hook hand in this case) to grind.  Make sure that guy is dead.  If he's not, he's going to come and find you, get revenge, and likely have a few combat buddy friends to even the odds.  In the words of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, "you f--ked with the wrong Marine!"  Even though the Charlie Rane character isn't a Marine, you still get the idea.