‘Once you take out the perverse pathology of these characters, rather than becoming films about fascism they become fascist films, and that’s what happened to Rolling Thunder.’ ~ Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Rolling Thunder (1977).
A few lines before this statement (which is true) in the book Schrader on Schrader, the screenwriter remarks that in the mid-70s he was writing screenplays at a fantastic rate because he was so full of ideas. Which one could, if one felt inclined, regard a little sceptically, since Rolling Thunder is in many ways the same idea as Taxi Driver, Schrader’s most acclaimed script: a Vietnam veteran goes on a campaign of vigilante violence culminating in a massacre in a whorehouse.
The differences here lie in the talents involved and the respect shown to the story: re-writing has purged both William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder and Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver of their most overt racism, but Scorsese works with what he’s got to vividly evoke the prejudices of his protagonist. There’s a fascinating push-pull of attraction-repulsion to this psychotic protagonist, which makes some people uncomfortable, but at least shows minds working behind the camera.
Rolling Thunder is an altogether less thoughtful piece. John Flynn, the director, did make the commendable The Outfit (1973), with Robert Duvall and a rogue’s gallery of vintage film noir faces, which is one of the better attempts to put Richard Stark’s psychopath-hero Parker on screen, but the unreflective approach to the material in Rolling Thunder robs it of the chance to live up to its predecessor. Tarantino is a fan of its no-nonsense kick-ass attitude, but I must confess I was disappointed by the ending, in which the protagonists murder a building full of people, and we are left with no clue as to what the attitude of law enforcement is going to be. It’s typical of QT to be enthused by inventively violent, empty movies, and so I suppose a flick where a guy loses a hand in a garbage disposal grinder and then sharpens his hook so he can rip up his persecutors would appeal. And I’m not unsympathetic to the visceral appeal of those elements, but I want more.
Devane, no De Niro, is nevertheless effective, his dark little eyes as unrevealing with or without aviator glasses. But whenever his buddy Tommy Lee Jones is on screen, we get a glimpse of a far more disturbing film: that thousand-yard stare speaks of true alienation and death-wish drive. Linda Haynes is affecting and natural as the girlfriend Devane takes with him on his Peckinpah-inflected Mexican mission of madness, and it’s a shame to see her dropped from the plot, especially after she’s demonstrated the required sharp-shooting skills. An interview included as extra feature catches up with Haynes today.
The overall feeling is of a violent, nonsensical movie that happens to contain more intelligently filmed or played moments than you’d expect. The structure is peculiar, which suits the unpredictable 70s vibe, but the assumptions underlying it are, as Schrader says, extremely dubious: the Mexican characters are all sleazy stereotypes, and of all Devane’s opponents, only the white Texan shows any competence or intelligence. Once on his mission, Devane is able to get anything he wants by torturing or intimidating his enemies, and this works - nobody thinks to lie to him. And the inciting incident, the vicious attack that sets him on his path, is terribly unconvincing: having heard he has $2000, four thugs come to his house to get it, somehow correctly assuming that he won’t have banked it. These guys are willing to torture and kill for what will divide up into 500 bucks a head: desperadoes indeed.