You learn to love the rope.
It would be easy to disregard John Flynn’s 1977 revenge thriller Rolling Thunder as another piece of exploitation trash. The film sits squarely on the fringe of mainstream American cinema, riding the wave but failing to replicate the successes of the similarly minded High Plains Drifter (1973), Death Wish (1974) and, most notably, Taxi Driver (1976), the Martin Scorsese breakthrough that shares Rolling Thunder’s famed screenwriter Paul Schrader. Both films have a grimy quality, but where Taxi Driver clearly possesses more artistic aspirations, Rolling Thunder embraced the sleaze, offering an incisive and brutal look at the fallout of the Vietnam War. The film was thusly relegated to obscurity for decades, but its most enduring quality, and probably the reason it enjoys modest relevance today, is the twisted sort of sympathy it shows its main character. Revenge films are rarely concerned with justifying the motivations of their characters; here, Flynn gives the action a societal context that underlines the absurdity of American life circa Vietnam, when violence was the undercurrent of daily life, highlighted by the farcical nature of the war itself. Rolling Thunder never condones violence, but it does succeed in presenting the horror and lurid appeal of a world where violence has become inevitable.
The film, set in 1973, stars William Devane as Major Charles Rane, a lauded soldier who spent five years as a POW after his plane was shot down in North Vietnam. Back home in a tiny Texas town, Rane is reunited with a young son who doesn’t remember him and a wife who’d written him off for dead and fell in love with another man. Also returning home is Sgt. Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), who counterbalances Rane’s detached and stoic demeanor with extreme anxiety and dread. When the plane that’s bringing them home touches down, Vohden tells Rane that he’s too nervous to face all the people waiting for them. “Then put your glasses on,” Rane tells him. So he dons a pair of dark sunglasses, and the image of a brave war hero stepping off a plane and into the adoring arms of friends, family and the public instead becomes an ironic symbol of how violence can corrupt nonviolent moments. Rane and Vohden are returning to a world they fear and no longer recognize. The future is so scary, they have to wear shades.
As calm as Rane seems, there’s turmoil beneath the surface, and Flynn takes special measures to indicate his mental state. Rane begins sleeping in a shed in his backyard rather than in bed with his wife, in part because of their fractured relationship but mostly because he’s more comfortable in dark and confined spaces. There, his trauma reshapes the innocuous objects that surround him into violent instruments: buzz saws, hammers, shovels and rope have never looked more menacing. Also prominent in the shed is his collection of firearms, which are hung with pride on all four walls. In a key scene, Rane partakes in a foreboding conversation with Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), a local cop and his wife’s new lover. He demonstrates how his captors tortured him, grinning ever so slightly as he explains how he coped with the physical and emotional anguish: “You learn to love the rope. That’s how you beat them.” All the while, the characters are flanked on all sides by Rane’s guns, and the already tense conversation is undercut with these inconspicuous yet austere images of hostility.
The scene illustrates how Rane carries his violent history with him, and it’s possible that Flynn found inspiration for this scene in the “stuffed bird” shots from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho. The power of both scenes is found in the staging of the actors and the symbolism of their surroundings. In Psycho, Norman Bates chats with the woman he’s moments away from killing as birds of prey adorn the walls around him. In Rolling Thunder, Rane and Cliff’s disquieting conversation has a distinct tone of menace, thanks to the intricacy of the imagery. Flynn, whose other films in this era include the underrated and similarly trashy crime thriller The Outfit (1973) and the early Jerry Bruckheimer production Defiance (1980), displays a tremendous feeling for place and setting in his work, from the isolated structures that reflect his characters’ inner-lives to the shadowy streets and sidewalks of towns and cities indifferent to anything resembling an inner-life. Rolling Thunder, a thoroughly self-aware film, conveys characters that are alternately at odds and at peace with their surroundings. The search for solace is at once a physical and existential exercise.
The film eventually pivots into a more conventional mode, but the inciting act is also its most poetic gesture. To honor Rane, the town mayor gives him a brand new Cadillac convertible and 2,555 silver dollars, one for each day he was held prisoner. The idea that the experience of extreme torture could not only be measured but redeemed with money is a particularly potent bit of satire, especially after a group of depraved criminals break into Rane’s home and demand he fork it over. When he refuses, they kill his wife and son and stick his right hand down the garbage disposal, leaving it irrevocably disfigured. Where the previous scene illustrated Rane’s decision to insulate himself with violence, this sequence suggests that not even violence can shield you from violence; instead, violence simply begets violence until there’s nothing left. Rane vows revenge against his attackers, and once that ground has been laid, Rolling Thunder opens up into a total free-for-all.
In weird moment of cartoon brilliance, Flynn and Scharder have Rane attach a razor-sharp metal hook where his hand used to be, turning him into Paul Kersey by way of Captain Hook, and after loading himself to the teeth, he recruits Vohden to join him on his mission. Vohden, more than eager to abandon his civilian life, hesitates for a brief second before leaving to collect his weapons, and in a brilliant bit of acting, Jones imparts the feeling that Vohden fully considers this his destiny. But for all the inane exploits, bloody violence and dark humor of the film’s second half, Rane’s alienation remains at the forefront. Like Vohden, he’s willing if not downright pleased to abandon society and follow a path of vengeance. His family’s murder is treated less like a tragedy and more like an act of disrespect that must be punished. His crusade has less to do with justice and far more to do with pride. Other ironies abound: His primary foe, Automatic Slim (Luke Askew), is a Vietnam vet himself, but there’s no solidarity between them, no sense of shared trauma. “I was lying in the mud while you cats were flying overhead,” he tells Rane, alluding to a unique sort of wartime class system that disproves the old adage of “army of one.”
It’s easy to lose the film’s meaning during the highly-orchestrated conclusion, which is basically a bullet-ridden bloodbath that’s crazier and gorier than Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) put together. But in searching for insights into the minds and motivations of the characters, the plethora of shotgun blasts, dead bodies and repeated images of Rane stabbing people with his scary hook-hand should provide the answers. The senselessness of the Vietnam War is found here, given life by the ridiculous violence and Rane’s anti-heroism. Rolling Thunder fully embraces its many contradictions, right down to a final beat that suggests emotional closure but is treated more like a demented punchline. At that moment, the rest of the film feels like a windup, as though perhaps Flynn had been pulling our leg the entire time. But then you remember the violence, the blood and the depravity, the hypocrisy of Vietnam and the indifference of society. Suddenly the notion that any of these ideas and feelings and tones could ever coexist feels immediately absurd. And that’s precisely the point. You learn to love the rope.