Rolling Thunder (1977) is a great revenge drama co-written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould from an original story by Schrader, and directed by John Flynn. Flynn had a pretty solid career, working his way up to director under Robert Wise, with 16 film directing credits that also included a lean mean mob movie with Robert Duvall from a Donald Westlake novel, The Outfit (1973), the relatively best Steven Seagal flick, Out For Justice (1991), and the goofy sci-fi horror flick Brainscan (1994) among others. The focus this week though is Paul Schrader, who made the jump from writer to writer/director the following year with Blue Collar (1978). I also got on a bit of a Schrader kick and rewatched a couple more films for review that I hadn’t seen in a long time, Hardcore (1979) and Light Sleeper (1992).
Rolling Thunder begins with the return home of Vietnam vets Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sgt. Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) from seven plus years in a Hanoi POW prison. They land in Rane’s hometown of San Antonio and are greeted on the tarmac by a huge crowd with school marching bands and town dignitaries, and Vohden in particular seems overwhelmed and suffering with serious PTSD, while Rane is a little more in control and tries to reassure him. Rane returns to his house with his wife and young son, and the boy has no memory of his father as he left home when the boy was 18 months old, which renders it pretty sad and bittersweet. The real blow comes when Rane and his wife are finally alone in the the living room. They make small talk at first about her hairstyle, lack of brasserie, and the miniskirts he thought he’d never live to see. She then explains that as he went from presumed dead to prisoner, every guy she knew, including all his friends from the base, made a move on her, but she was faithful until she and their friend, recently divorced Texas Ranger Cliff, fell into an affair, with her emphasizing that even though Cliff’s intentions were obvious, he never made a pass until she invited one. She tells him they are in love, he has asked her to marry him, and she has said yes. His simple, “I knew that. We all did.” packs a lot of pain and remorse into a few words.
The movie has a languid pace that builds slowly and is one of its finest features. The first half hour is composed of small moments of Rane’s awkward readjustment to freedom and civilian life. He meets with the military psychologist Maxwell (Dabney Coleman), who he tells that he had everything worked out, but nothing’s going as planned; Cliff steps up to be a man and clear the air, and gets a glimpse of how damaged Rane is when he demonstrates the torture he was subjected to; he watches his son play baseball from a distance; he sits quiet and alone in the workshop behind his house looking pained and lost; all occasionally broken up with brief black and white flashbacks to his torture and imprisonment. Rane also makes an appearance at a civic event in his honor where he is given a red Cadillac convertible and a box of silver dollars, 2,555 of them, plus one for luck, one for each day he was a prisoner. The latter are presented by Texas belle Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes) who has worn Rane’s ID bracelet every day since he was captured and is clearly smitten. Devane’s fine controlled performance and the everyday naturalness of the dialogue in these scenes anchor the story in a concrete reality and are well directed and set a great tone for what follows.
Rane runs into Forchet while he’s tooling about town in his fine red Caddy and she drags him for a quick drink at her place of work. She casually throws herself at him, tells him she will do “anything” and explains the concept of a groupie to him, but he’s too broken and haunted to take advantage and think about living again and turns her down cold. The plot kicks into gear when he returns home and finds a couple of good ol’ boys with a pair of Mexican muscle in his living room, and they want them silver dollars. Now even in ‘77, $2500 wasn’t that much money, and I just kind of took it that these were the sort of petty crooks who figured it would be easy pickings and resented the public adulation the Major received. One of the men says that he served and was up to his ass in mud in the jungle while the Major was flying through the clouds, kind of glossing over the whole seven years of imprisonment and torture thing after being shot down, but they have no mercy or respect. After his time in Hanoi, the Major sure is hell isn’t going to give these clowns any more than the name rank and serial number he gave the Vietnamese and the beating escalates to the kitchen where the ringleader has the men shove his right hand into the garbage disposal and grind it to pulp. He still won’t talk, but unfortunately his wife and son return home, and the son quickly volunteers to retrieve the coins from their hiding place. The men make their plans to meet up at the border, and to leave no witnesses they execute the family. Rane survives the gunshots, while his wife and son do not.
Rane spends a few weeks convalescing in the military hospital and adjusting to the hooks that have replaced his hand and he is visited by both Vohden and Forchet. I’ll mention here that while Devane is understated and great, Tommy Lee Jones and Linda Haynes are also very fine. Jones has little dialogue but really conveys the depth of his damaged country boy with his demeanor and body language, you can see he’s about to become a star. And Haynes does a lot with her somewhat larger role, she’s really compelling and compensates for the silences of the men with a natural believable character. (I was curious and looked up her IMDB, surprised I hadn’t seen more of her, and she had a few good roles but retired in 1980 after Brubaker and the Jim Jones movie Guyana Tragedy, as she said didn’t like the lifestyle or the booze and drugs and wanted to have a family. Having worked in another couple of cult films besides this, like Coffy (1973) and Latitude Zero (1969), she sounded gracious and appreciative that she is still remembered by fans.) Rane is also approached by Cliff for information, and Rane stonewalls him and claims he can’t remember any details, and though a lawman, Cliff is clearly up for some extrajudicial justice himself (and later gets killed in an atmospheric scene after he surreptitiously follows Rane’s trail), but Rane wants nothing to do with his dead wife’s lover. He sharpens his hooks, saws off a shotgun, loads the trunk with weapons, and hits the road after picking up Forchet, who drops her tray of drinks and walks out on her job with him.Unbeknownst to Forchet, who presumes the man she’s been throwing herself at is taking her on a fun holiday to Mexico, Rane coldly uses her as a decoy and bait to get information on the thug’s whereabouts. Forchet gets angry when she realizes what he’s done, but her compassion gets the better of her and they reach an understanding as Rane tells her, “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you but I’m dead. They’ve pulled out whatever it was inside of me. It never hurt at all after that and it never will.” They ramble around the border after Rane verifies the thugs’ location in a Mexican whorehouse, and they have some nice moments while Forchet still seems hopeful of some sort of a future together and tries to talk him out of revenge as they get to know each other, but in the morning Rane leaves a pile of cash on the hotel nightstand and heads out before she wakes.
Rane is wearing his dress uniform when he shows up at Vohden’s house in El Paso and there is a funny scene where he hangs quietly with Vohden’s family while they make redneck small talk, “Well even white people don’t make things any good anymore. I bought a US made TV because I wanted to buy American. And it broke down in three weeks. When the repairman came to fix it he said all the parts were made in Japan anyway. So next time I’m gonna buy one straight from Japan.” Rane finally pulls Vohden aside and tells him he found the men who killed his son, and Vohden comes alive for the first time, and with no hesitation, “I’ll get my gear,” and loads a shotgun and a box of shells into a canvas bag before putting on his dress uniform as well. Rane sends him in as a customer since they don’t know him, and tells Vohden he’ll come up the back after he ices the guard, and tap his hook on the shotgun for a signal. They proceed to exact their revenge in an extended and nicely choreographed scene of violence as they clean house from the second to first floor, and though wounded, they walk out the door alive, not that unlike when they exited the plane, two broken men to an unknown future they no longer comprehend.I have seen every movie Paul Schrader has scripted and directed, and several of them are very good to great, and I find even his misfires to be interesting and worthwhile because of his strong viewpoint and artistic intent, but putting aside his screenplays for Scorsese, and with the arguable exception of Affliction (1997), I think his best directorial effort remains his first, Blue Collar, a quintessential American movie, directed and co-written by Schrader with his brother Leonard. The film opens with the song Hard Workin’ Man, (lyrics by Jack Nitzsche, Ry Cooder, and Schrader, performed by Captain Beefheart), a hard edged percussive blues number that plays suggestively over sharply freeze framed shots of men, and a few woman, working the steel and tools and machines of an automotive assembly line at a Checker taxicab factory while the credits flash on the screen. Three main characters and friends emerge from the industrial dinge and the sweaty rancor, a truly outstanding Richard Pryor as Zeke, Harvey Keitel’s Jerry, and Yaphet Kotto as Smokey. They have grievances with their Union’s mismanagement, doubletalk, and unwillingness to solve minor problems, and they detest the company foreman and middle managers who are always pushing buttons and asking for more while giving them no respect and nothing but threats to their livelihood in return.The movie establishes these men with atmospheric scenes in their dive bars and lower middle class homes; Zeke and Jerry, family men struggling to make ends meet and provide minimal comforts like braces for the kids, and working automobiles and appliances for their wives; bachelor ladies man Smokey has it a little easier without family obligations, but his lifestyle has put him in debt with loan sharks, and his criminal past hangs over his head. Zeke is a determined, confident man with expectations of a better life and he goes to his Local’s office to have his say to the Union president, and while the boss lies with an earnest smile on his face and makes promises he won’t keep, Zeke notices the office safe and the lack of security and the wheels start to turn. Late one Saturday night, Zeke and Jerry sneak out of the house with bullshit excuses to their wives. They meet up and head to Smokey’s, where three fine ladies, a big pile of cocaine, and a lot of booze fuel a welcome escape from their soul crushing reality. In the morning, sitting together coming down on the couch while the sun shines in, Zeke broaches the idea of a robbery. They initially reject it as too risky, but as the financial pressures and humiliations mount, Smokey hatches a plan that involves a fee and a 10% cut to his mob guy for his safecracking expertise, and they make their move.
The robbery is a bust, the safe was left open and they didn’t even need the schematics they agreed to pay for, they are forced to knockout a security guard doing rounds, and though they steal a small floor safe from the larger walk-in, when they crack that at the service station where Jerry moonlights, they get a lousy $600, some documents, and a ledger book filled with cryptic notations. The next day when the news is broadcast, the guard can make no identification beyond two black guys and a white guy, “an Oreo cookie, ha ha ha,” he tells the police, the Union president sadly shakes his head, places his trust in the brave men of law enforcement to solve this terrible crime, and admits that, yes, over $10,000 they were holding for another local was stolen, tragic, of course, but at least they are insured. While Smokey and Jerry simmer with their disappointment and resentment at the lie, Zeke figures out that the ledger represents illegal mob related juice loans being made at a huge profit with their dues, and then Smokey suggests the blackmail angle. They figure they’ll get paid that $10,000 from the Union to keep the book from going to the feds. They know the Local is under investigation as earlier in the film they were approached in their bar by an FBI agent in the guise of a university professor doing research, and while he was immediately outed by the more observant Smokey and rebuffed, he now represents leverage.
They place an ad in The Detroit Free press and get an affirmative response. The Union then makes a claim in a meeting to discuss the robbery with their members that it was actually $20,000 stolen, because they are going to make a profit no matter what. While this makes the men even more angry and determined, the fear and paranoia sets in as they realize they are in way over their heads with the law and the mob and the company and the union all against them, and even Smokey has no idea how to safely make the switch. He says that for their protection they can no longer be seen together, their friendship is basically over, and then his mob friend shows up to demand his cut of the fictional money whether they get it or not. While they are still trying to figure out what to do, the mobster is busted for an unrelated crime and offers them up to make a deal. It’s a company town and the law informs the union, and the president sits in his office with three files making strategy; Jerry, “A Union man to the core, he’ll crumple.” Zeke, “This one is hungry, he wants his hand on the levers, he can be bought.” Smokey, “This two-time loser will make us pay through the teeth, and then fuck us in the ass anyway just for the fun of it.” Their fates are pretty well sealed, the system will just grind on with them under.
Zeke accepts the offer of promotion to shop steward and the removal of the offending company foreman and wants to believe their promises that Jerry and Smokey will be fine, so he returns the ledger, and their only leverage. There is some nice action as the honorable Smokey again sniffs out trouble and ambushes a couple of mob knuckle draggers coming to intimidate Jerry, and finds out the Union sent them courtesy of a mob boss. The Union retaliates and straight up murders Smokey in a harrowing scene in a painting bay that can be plausibly sold as “negligence” and a “workplace accident,” with neither Zeke nor Jerry buying it, but as Zeke tells him, it’s too late to help Smokey, so he’s not going to the feds, he’s going to protect himself and his family by sticking with the Union, and as far as he is concerned, Jerry is forgetting one thing he has to his advantage that he doesn’t, he’s white, Zeke ain’t.
The movie concludes with Jerry having gone to the Feds as an informant after being further menaced with an attempt on his life, and when they escort him to the plant to clean his locker out, he and Zeke have a truly ugly and heartbreaking shouting match, these two close friends that spent time with each other’s families, with Zeke throwing out traitor and rat and Jerry angrily using the N-word among some other choice insults as they just get angrier, and it is so painful to watch these good men broken apart as the the final shot freezes and they each have a huge wrench in hand and are in the process of bringing them down on each other’s heads, the theme song kicks in while a voiceover of Smokey’s earlier dialogue replays, “They pit the lifers against the new guy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” This is an angry, cynical movie of men trapped between their company and union. It pulls no punches and is one of the strongest indictments of American capitalism and labor that’s ever been made. The bulk of these automotive jobs may be long gone from Detroit, but nothing has changed for the working class, and in fact has gotten much worse, as fewer protections exist and college graduates are saddled with massive debts they can’t repay and take service industry jobs with no benefits just to survive in the same rigged system. I can’t overstate how great the three central performances are or how assured this movie’s direction, and sharp its writing. This is a flawless, timeless movie and it is essential viewing.Schrader’s follow up was Hardcore, which he wrote solo and directed. A more personal film in the sense that the central character of Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a strongly conservative Calvinist father from Grand Rapids, Schrader’s own general background, who is forced outside of his insular world to confront some harsh reality when his teenage daughter goes missing. The girl Kristen is out in California for a Calvinist Youth Jamboree along with her cousin, and on a day trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, she disappears. While the police are working the case, they have no real leads and indicate the difficulty of finding her and suggest Van Dorn hire a private detective. He engages Andy Mast (Peter Boyle, whose roles always seem to fall on a scale somewhere between seedy and sleazy, here it leans sleazy) at a pricey, especially for 1979, $750 a week, because he says he’s good at his job, and he tells Van Dorn to go home and let him do the work, he’s confident he’ll find her.
Several weeks pass quietly in Grand Rapids, Van Dorn had lived alone with his daughter, while work at his furniture factory and the quiet time with church folk and his sister and brother-in-law Wes (Dick Sargent) grind agonizingly on his stoic face. Then Mast turns up in town, they meet and Van Dorn is taken by Mast to an adult book store he’s rented out for an hour, and he explains that hardcore pornography is legal now, adult material is everywhere, even Grand Rapids, and proceeds to screen a short graphic film starring his daughter and two men. This about breaks Van Dorn, but Mast reassures him that at least she’s alive, and though, “Nobody made it. Nobody sold it. Nobody sees it. It doesn’t exist.” it is a lead, and says he’ll eventually find her. After five months with no further word, Van Dorn flies out to California unannounced, and when he arrives at Mast’s apartment he finds him about to have sex with a pretty young girl, Mast is indignant and defensive, “it’s research, she could have information” but he’s fired and Van Dorn takes up the case himself. His unfocused search through the various businesses of the sex industry get across his discomfort and confusion with a minimum of titillation, everyone assumes he’s a cop, and he doesn’t ever quite figure out that he could simply pay all these hustlers for information. After he fails to fake his way into the porn business pretending to be a bored businessman looking to invest $50,000, the producer politely laughs him out of the office, “my last picture made 5.3 million, I don’t need investors,” he decides to pose as a producer and advertises for a male porn actor and hope the still from his daughter’s film can be matched to a face. He gets lucky with old Jism Jim and beats the name of the filmmaker, Tod, out of the guy, but he can only further give him the name of an actress who might know where to find him.Van Dorn tracks down sex worker and porn actress Niki (Season Hubley) and their search for them moves them from LA to San Diego and on to San Francisco as they also discover Tod and Kristen are now in the company of Ratan, who in addition to extreme S&M films also dabbles in kiddie porn, sex slaves, and in a bit of overkill, snuff films. Their time together is really the broken heart of the movie. Niki tries again and again to tell her story, to convey her humanity, to be seen and heard, and Van Dorn just keeps shutting her down, telling her he doesn’t want to hear about her life and doesn’t care, they’re different, she wouldn’t understand him; and he treats her like another species, not so much because he’s hard hearted, but because he’s unwilling to look outside of his beliefs and worldview to try and know or understand her. Niki even correctly guesses that his wife isn’t dead, as he told her, but left him and moved to New York, and also surmises that Kristen left her repressed life willingly and may not want to come home. She does everything but ask out loud for the help she is desperately looking for and gets nothing but the lip service and facsimile of Christian compassion.
Van Dorn does find his daughter after going through Tod and then Ratan in a violent conclusion to the film, and though Kristen at first resists, she breaks down and leaves with her father and the cops in the end. Niki is left to walk off alone, as she sadly saw coming, back to her abusive pimp and hopeless life. When Van Dorn gives Mast a token, hey, can we help, maybe give her some money or something, Mast shrugs it off with, no, forget about it, that’s all she knows, you can’t help her, it really hurts, because money and the offer of concern would certainly help, and while that may be the cynical reality for so many broken lives, just this once, I wanted a happy ending. This is a very good movie, well directed with a great use of locations and reverse shots using mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and despite the patience of individual scenes it moves quickly. Scott is a great actor, one of the best ever, and really does a lot of exceptional work with his facial expressions and body language because his character lacks the words he needs, Boyle and Hubley are also excellent. Just another of Schrader’s stories of broken men trying and failing to find meaning in their lives, it’s well worth checking out.Speaking of broken men looking for meaning, in a film Schrader has said is most personal, Light Sleeper finds Willem Dafoe’s drug dealer, John Le Tour, adrift in a mid-life crisis. Le Tour works for Ann (Susan Sarandon) who handles upper management and drug connections while Le Tour and Robert (David Clennon) make the cocaine deliveries to their high end clientele across NYC from the back of chauffered livery cars at premium rates of twice the street price, $200 a gram, that reflect their exclusive service. They never travel with more than 19 grams, which is by law considered personal, while 20 and up becomes felony distribution. They’ve known each other a long time, having graduated from fellow users to dealers, and at this point Ann is looking to get out with her nest egg and start an organic cosmetics business with Robert as an employee. Le Tour has quit using the product himself several years earlier, and is also looking to quit dealing, just not for cosmetics, but can only speak vaguely of the music business, of which he knows nothing, and Ann tells him this will probably end up like his previous attempts to model or act, forgotten. He also visits a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt, Schrader’s long time wife who typically ends up in a small role in his films) who warns him of impending violence, and besides the insomnia he just can’t get over his ex Marianne (Dana Delany) who got away and off the drugs.
He then runs into Marianne by chance twice over a couple of days, she’s back in town because her mother is terminally ill, and while she pushes him away afraid of a relapse, she eventually gives in for some sex before telling him that while she doesn’t regret the night together, it’s really finally over and to never contact her again. Meanwhile, he deals and makes rounds. Another dealer, Jealous (Sam Rockwell) who hilariously sports the ugliest jacket I’ve ever seen, a monstrosity of oversized leather composed of all the primary colors, it’s unbelievable, tells him that a rich college girl was found dead in the park with a big bag of quality coke, and all the mid level dealers are in the spotlight, not as suspects as such, but as potential witnesses, and he is soon sweated by a detective who demands information to continue business as usual. He also has to cater to his customers, including a strung out guy in a massive downward spiral that he’s forced to help; David Spade, ridiculous as the Theological Cokehead; and most importantly, Tis (Victor Garber), a wealthy Swiss national who’s going to buy Ann’s business, customers and connections complete. While Le Tour makes a delivery to Tis, Marianne stumbles disheveled out of one of the penthouse’s bedrooms. A disturbed Le Tour stays steady and doesn’t call her out, but as he exits the building, Marianne exits the window. When he hears on the news, that she was found alone in the apartment, he drops a dime to shake the detective with info and maybe honor Marianne who he thinks may not have jumped.
This leads to another of Schrader’s violent conclusions between Tis and his muscle and Le Tour, but with his premonitions of violence, Le Tour comes prepared and gets some timely help from Ann and survives. And though incarcerated and facing five years, he protects Ann from prosecution and they have a hopeful and warm conversation about their future in the prison visitation room. It’s an entertaining, well made movie, a crisp 95 minutes, Dafoe and Sarandon are typically fine, and though I liked it, I don’t put it amongst Schrader’s finest work. While I can personally relate strongly to some of the characters experience and appreciate the soul searching about booze and drugs and change at the heart of it, and like the well observed small moments, the overall mechanics of the plot are still a bit boilerplate for my taste. And the 1992 of it all, pagers, that jacket, and my goodness why did every movie back then give and take a few years require some awful mournful smooth jazz sax, plinky synth, and undertuned electric guitar, the score is dated and bad, and Delany’s feathered head helmet and outfits are something else, yeesh, a year with some bad taste, thank god rock and roll and blue jeans and t-shirts never go out of style.
Rolling Thunder is sadly only available for DVD purchase on Amazon and streaming through alternative means. Blue Collar and Hardcore are Amazon rentals. Light Sleeper is free with Prime and available to rent. Cheers.