Instant Finds – Rolling Thunder
Revenge movies are a tricky thing.
On one end of the spectrum you have violent power fantasies like The Crow, Desperado or Machete; unrealistic hyper-violent orgies of death and destruction that paint vigilante justice as a swift and powerful sword of righteousness.
On the other end are movies like I Saw The Devil, Hard Candy and Memento, which suggest that when someone takes the law into their own hands they risk turning into the very monsters that they are after.
And then there’s Rolling Thunder, a 1977 revenge thriller co-written by Paul Schrader, which seems to straddle the line between both sides, suggesting that while vigilante justice may be “right” in some cases, you’re not going to come out a better person having committed it.
The film stars William Devane as Major Charles Rane, who is reunited with his family after spending seven long years in a Vietnam POW camp. Within hours of coming back home, however, he discovers that his young son doesn’t remember him and that his wife had an affair and now wants to leave him for another man.
All things considered, he takes the news rather well, I guess after being beaten and tortured non-stop for seven years, dysfunctional family stuff just kind of rolls off of you, and besides, it soon becomes clear that he’s far too busy dealing with the psychological demons from his POW experience to really come to terms and grasp his family problems. He moves out of his home and into the backyard tool shed, where he reenacts his day-to-day life in the POW camp, even going as far as to ask his wife’s lover to torture him.
That little scenario alone could make for a great film, or at the very least a really fucked up episode of a daytime talk show, but it turns out that divorce and a mad case of PTSD are the least of Major Rane’s problems. One day after watching his son play baseball, Rane returns home only to be greeting by a gang of thugs who want to rob him of some money he was given in a public ceremony celebrating his return. Under the threat of torture, Rane reverts to his POW camp state of mind, proving impossible to crack even when they jam his hand in a garbage disposal. But when his wife and son come home, they cave immediately, giving the goons money without so much as a threat against them. As a thank you for their cooperation, the villainous thugs murder them both, before shooting Rane as well and leaving him for dead.
Of course, he lives, and after rehabilitating in the VA for several weeks, Rane returns home and promptly sets out for his revenge, sharpening his new nifty new hook for a hand into a deadly weapon and grabbing a sawed-off shotgun for good measure.
Now, if this was Death Wish or any other low-rent revenge flick from the 1970s, Rane’s quest for vengeance would be portrayed as nothing short of a holy crusade, and Rane as a just warrior setting right the wrongs that the law is unable to correct. However, things aren’t so simple in Rolling Thunder.
For starters, Rane goes out of his way to avoid getting the law involved. He remembers everything that happened during the crime, including the names and faces of his family’s murderers, as well as where they were going after the attacks, but he purposely withholds that information from the police. This isn’t a matter of him taking the law in his own hand(s) because the law is unwilling, it’s a matter of him thinking his revenge is above the law.
Furthermore, throughout the film Rane shows that he is perfectly willing to put innocent lives on the line to get his revenge. Early on, he cons Linda, a barmaid with a crush on him, into going along with him on his trip for payback, using her (despite the risks it puts on her life) to draw out information about his attackers. He also fights, maims and threatens pretty much anyone gets in his way, whether they mean to or not.
Near the end of the film, when Rane has all the information he needs to make one last attack on murderous bandits, he calls on his friend and fellow POW Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones!!) to help him carry out the task. Unlike with Linda, Rane gives Vohden all the details about what he wants to do, and just how bloody and violent he intends on making it. And while Linda was repulsed by Rane’s plan and tried to talk him out of it, Vohden gleefully smiles about it, taking an obvious joy out of the chance to re-arm himself and gun down some “bad guys.” You really get the impression that if Rane hadn’t called upon Vohden to help him with his murderous plan, Vohden probably would have found some other, maybe less just, reason to off some fools.
Because it serves in so many shades of grey, Rolling Thunder isn’t as satisfying or gratifying as many other revenge films. While in the right, Rane comes off more like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (also written by Schrader) than Bronson’s character from Death Wish. He may be getting a righteous revenge, but as you watch him manipulate and brutalize those around him, it really doesn’t feel like it. And when the time comes for shoot out at the end, you’re rooting for him, but you’re just as much rooting for sanity to prevail and for him to regain his humanity.
If you don’t mind walking on the darker side of 70s cinema and want to catch a flick that might repulse you as much as entertain you, then give Rolling Thunder a shot. And if you really just want to hate yourself and all of humanity, make it a double feature with Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, another “revenge isn’t all it’s cooked up to be” classic.
But don’t blame me if you feel the need to take the world’s longest shower afterwards.
Rolling Thunder is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly.