Rolling Thunder is a little-seen gem that is one of the best explorations of the act of revenge ever put to film. Not only a fascinating journey into man’s darkest angels, but a satisfying tale of frontier justice.
The Sicilians and Klingons have a saying; Revenge is a dish best served cold. That it is, and Rolling Thunder takes said proverb and runs with it. It’s a searing, methodical, tough piece of work that transcends its exploitation origins. Never has the act of revenge been presented so matter-of-factly and without agenda and just when you think writer Paul Schrader is going for the soapbox he pulls back and lets the film settle into its action movie confines.
Released in the summer of 1977, Rolling Thundermade its modest budget back on the drive-in circuit, but after earning decent coin and critical acclaim, it disappeared. Surfacing on video and Home Box Office (where I saw it) a few years later it earned a cult following that lasts today with Director Quentin Tarantino as one of its biggest fans going so far as to name his production company after it.
William Devane stars as Major Charles Rane, who along with fellow POW camp survivor, Johnny Vohden, (Tommy Lee Jones) is returning home to San Antonio, Texas after eight years of physical and mental torture in Vietnam. Greeted with a marching band and cheering crowds, both men are given a true heroes welcome. Rain is awarded a brand new Cadillac convertible and $2,500 in silver dollars, one for everyday of his capture in the Hanoi Hellhole. Linda Forche` (Haynes), who later tells Rane that she is his groupie and will do whatever he wants, presents the gift to him.
Just as the Major is settling into his new life, his wife drops a bombshell- she is in love with another man. His reaction is of indifference, but does admit it is too much for him to hear. He appears drained of every desire-every emotion except for the love of his nine-year-old son, who he is slowly getting to know. The other shoe drops when five armed thugs break into his house demanding the $2,500 in silver dollars. Reverting back to POW mode the Major refuses to cooperate. The Texan, played with slimy malevolence by James Best, orders his right hand into the garbage compactor. Once his hand is gone, he still refuses to talk. His wife and son come home and immediately offer up the money. The thugs shoot them anyway. Rane still says not a word. With his hand gone and his son murdered, the mcguffin is set in motion as he becomes obsessed with vengeance for his son. The killers unwittingly give Rane a powerful weapon by cutting his hand off. In its place is a prosthetic hook that Rane sharpens into a deadly point. This becomes a powerful symbol of irony as he becomes more of a threat with his fake hand than his real one.
Once recuperated, the Major seeks help from his friend Johnny Vohden. He gets a lead and finds where the killers are headed. Even though he did not have to, he asks his friend to come along. Vohden reaction is without forethought, as he never once questions Rane’s agenda. Both men know each other better than they know themselves; their dialogue is dense, succinct and to the point. They have an almost psychic connection, two men who suffered through hell together, both psychologically damaged beyond repair. We see more than what’s stated. Spares dialogue illustrates what they will do.
“I found the men who murdered my son,” says Rane. A slight pause, Vohden starts to gather his satchel, shotgun. He looks up and with a matter–of-fact tone says, “Lets go clean ‘em up.”No moralizing, no questioning, Vohden’s loyalty reaches beyod their wartime kinship. A few succint lines are all that is required. Body language and facial expressions show us more than a page of loaded dialogue.
Much to Rane’s chagrin Linda Fourchette tags along. A nice girl, but a bit too wild for the Major. It’s obvious she has had an excessive amount of men in her life despite her young age. Rane is too complex for her as she thinks his emotional and sexual rejection is personal. It’s seemingly a thankless role that is given great depth and dimension by Linda Haynes’ natural performance. A credit to her talent since Schrader has never been known for scripting strong female characters.
Just one year before Schrader penned–Taxi Driver–here he offers a more sympathetic character in Major Rane. Bickle’s rage was somewhat elusive, random, fixated on the world in general; a lonely soul waiting to strike back. The Major’s rage is focused, accessible, even understandable. We know what he has been through; the imprisonment, the torture and then the murder of his son, so it is a no-brainer that he must do what he does.
Rolling Thundercaptivated the drive-in circuit regulars. Subtle this is not, but underneath its revenge/exploitation trappings, we get a smart, volatile story that pushes its character to the brink. Schrader seems to enjoy humiliating his characters by building them up and then tearing them down. As all movies that go like this, no matter how much happiness a character will experience, he will have an equal amount, if not more pain to bear. It is a great way to build tension as we wait for the shit to hit the fan.
Director Joe Flynn offers an acceptable low-key style that would never win any awards, but it suits the tone of the film. Even the final shoot-out in the Mexican whorehouse is shot rather straightforwardly, but its operatic, vengence-fueled power is retained. The cathartic release through violence is typical of this era and type of film. Lacking in fancy visual flair, its’ Schrader’s words and the performances that permeate every scene, making a lasting impression.
As in all Schrader vehicles, the performances are flawless. William Devane delivers his finest as Major Rane. The actor never really achieved the stardom his co-star Jones would receive as he concentrated on television’s “Knots Landing,” but his work here speaks for itself. Rane is nearly robotic in his emotional demeanor. He internalizes everything. He weeps not for no one and shows only love for his nine year-old son. Even when his wife reveals she has been with another man, he clams up. It is as if she died on that day since he never once mentions her in the same sentence as his dead son. When the thugs are cutting his hand off, he doesn’t even scream. You know he is a powder keg waiting to blow; it is only a matter of when.
Tommy Lee Jones as Johnny Vohden, in one of his very first co-starring roles, delivers the goods in his limited screen time, but he is the emotional anchor of the entire flick He is the match to the flame of the explosive events that will play out. Before Rane contacts him, he seems bored, uninterested, not comprehending what’s happening to him, just not giving a shit anymore, but when Rane comes along with his problem Johnny comes alive. You can see it in his face; he feels useful again. This is one of Jones’s finest pieces of work, ranking behind Lonesome Dove and Coal Miners Daughter.
James Best known simply as The Texan and to most as the doofus Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on television’s The Dukes of Hazzard, is one of the meanest Sob ever put on film. A greasy, rat-fuck bastard that makes you wish him instantly dead. He also delivers one of the films best lines. When Charlie’s wife asks him, why didn’t you just tell them where the money was? Best interjects with a smarmy grin on his face, “I’ll tell you why, ma’am.’Cause he’s one ma-cho motherfucker!”
That line is important because it is a subtle political statement that shows us the hell our soldiers went through, during and after the Vietnam war and how little the general public cared. It’s the state that created this warrior and it’s the state who discards him. The Texan is murdering, thieving walking slug who thinks Rane’s silence is something surface as machismo. Has nothing to do with male bravado, but the damage the war has done to him. In captivity to showing pain gave the enemy pleasure. That is not something that can be turned off like a switch. When the thugs are torturing, Rane his response is to show nothing. That shows us what a tough bastard Rane is and how he was programmed into the ultimate solider and what a stupid miserable piece of trash The Texan is. When the bad stuff happens, we simply wait for The Texan and his goons to die.
Often compared to Death Wish but resemblance only in plot, Rolling Thunder is slightly deeper, the story of a man who has lost everything. When the thirst for justice becomes so overwhelming, there are no other options, but to kill. Major Charles Rane represents a man who is taking back his life. He knows his son’s murderers are meant to be dead. They would only find comfort in jail and make it a lifestyle they could endure. He cannot accept that. They must die.
If you are a fan of gritty 70’s revenge flicks than Rolling Thunder is your thing. The film is an explosive piece of work, but a very rewarding experience.
Lost in a legal morass, it’s DVD debut is a long time coming. What’s the hold up?