Rolling Thunder (1977) is one of those legendary cult films that fans of gritty genre cinema have held in high esteem for decades. Quentin Tarantino loves the film, even famously naming his distribution company after it. Long before I'd ever seen the film I'd heard whispers of its importance to genre fans. The poster was also enticingly provocative, with its tag line "Major Charles Rane Has Come Home to War!" and the illustrated motion lines of star William Devane's hook-hand mirrored in the stacking effect of the film's title, which also implies furious motion. Together, the image and text design combine for an accurate visualization of the film’s title.
John Flynn directs from a script co-written by Paul Schrader during 1970s streak where he also penned Taxi Driver and wrote and directed Blue Collar and Hardcore. While his original script for Rolling Thunder was drastically rewritten by Heywood Gould, the film still shares several similarities with Schrader's other work of the period. Together, these films present a staggeringly bleak look at many of the themes Schrader was working through in his writing. All four focus on men who feel marginalized, unable to express themselves except through rage or violence, and then what happens when this impotent yet volatile masculinity is finally let loose.
Devane gives a solemn yet seething performance in the lead role of Major Charles Rane; an impossibly young Tommy Lee Jones shines as fellow POW Johnny Vohden, also returning home to a life he doesn't care about anymore; and the radiant Linda Haynes plays Linda Forchet, who works at a bar and tries unsuccessfully to reach Rane's softer side. The Vietnam War left Rane and Vohden as shells of their former selves, though, lost and set adrift in an environment they no longer understand. Rolling Thunder offers a brutal message: the war devastated veterans, but coming home only further marginalized them.
After seven excruciating years as a POW in Vietnam, Devane's Major Charles Rane returns home a hero. Yet it’s clear from the start that something's drastically off about the stoic Rane. He's expressionless, sleepwalking through life now, and barely uttering a word. His wife, thinking him dead for all those years, has left him for another man. His young son barely knows him. He survived seven horrible years of torment to return home having lost everything that mattered to him before the war. In one of his first films, and still one of his only leads, Devane subtly conveys Rane's difficulty adjusting back home. He gives a powerfully controlled performance, yet one that resembles a powder keg ready to ignite at any moment.
Things quickly go from bad to worse for Rane. When his Texas hometown rewards him for his service with a Cadillac and cash, he is targeted by four lowlife criminals out to steal his loot. This being a 1970s genre film, their names are, of course, The Texan, Automatic Slim, T Bird and Melio. What follows is unspeakably awful. The home invaders torture him for the gold coins and all Rane can do is retreat inward while experiencing severe PTSD flashbacks from 'Nam. Rane's hand is mangled in the kitchen disposal, the outlaws murder his family, and abscond with the coins, leaving Rane behind for dead.
He survives though, and methodically undertakes his own version of Travis Bickle's "God's lonely man" descent into the underworld. His military training kicks in and he's soon stockpiling weapons and wielding a prosthetic hook for a right hand. When Rane tells his old war buddy Vohden he knows where the killers are (across the Border in Mexico), Jones' reaction shot is simply masterful. He barely stops to think; he's in, all in. Jones is all raw energy threatening to explode as a man so destroyed by war that he's lost his ability to feel anything for anyone. The scene where he interacts with his family at home is simply heartbreaking, depicting a man who never quite returned from the jungle. So he jumps at the chance to be a soldier again, to do the one thing that still makes sense to him, if only to feel something again. Violence as catharsis, a theme Schrader returns to often in his scripts and films.
Besides the excessive force of the home invasion and Grand Guignol finale in a Mexican whorehouse, most of the film is relatively quiet and reserved in tone. This is intentional, of course, lending even greater impact to those moments of sudden, shocking violence. It's also a reflection of Rane's own stolid behavior barely masking the rolling thunder underneath his placid, expressionless face. Throughout the film, residing just below the surface, is an undercurrent of dread and hopelessness that becomes absolutely suffocating. To say the film ends in an orgy of nihilistic carnage would be an understatement. It mirrors Taxi Driver's final massacre in both execution and brutality. Unlike Taxi Driver though, there is no postscript to ponder; the film simply ends, mere moments after the revenge-fueled, murderous rampage is over.
In hindsight, Rolling Thunder is one of the most uncompromising and savage revenge movies of its era, or any era for that matter. Though not explicitly offering commentary on the consequences of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam, its stark portrayal of men ruined by war speaks volumes. Rane and Vohden are nothing-men, destroyed by war and the country and families that didn't understand them once they came home. All of that internalized anger, resentment, and post-traumatic stress can only stay bottled up for so long. In Rane's case, it takes the horrific murders of his wife and son for him to find direction. Unfortunately that direction leads straight to hell.