I think you can always demarcate a cinematic genre by the lastest war’s returning veterans. For one thing, they all come home with guns, either their own pistol or a captured enemy souvenir. For two, they all need a job, and since there’s no more need for war engines, the economy’s down, and the job they left has been given away and likely some 4F’s stole their family or girlfriend, and 3) they have trouble picking up the pieces of a shot-to-hell family life. After WWI they all came home and got involved in bootlegging, leading to Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface; after WW2 they all got involved with femme fatales and shadowy crimes, leading to film noir; after Vietnam, though, they came home so fucked-up they couldn’t sleep or sit still, they could only stalk the city at night, shooting anyone who resembled an enemy, leading to, well, the unique mix of horror, character study, action, and social critique that was the 70s returning vet film. They got involved with Russian roulette (allegedly), dud late-night/bad area taxi driving, brothel-blasting, and sundry acts of bloody cathartic vengeance. They couldn’t leave the war behind, they hadn’t been allowed to shoot nearly as many people as they needed, maybe they just had PTSD before people knew what that even was, or maybe they were dead already and returning through some monkey’s paw wish of their parents. The popularity of Dirty Harry (1971), Walking Tall (1973), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976) as well as the Peckinpah oeuvre, made it important for any white man who could shoot straight to get out on the street and start avenging perceived injustice, even if it meant being scene as a racist, sexist, psychopath, and killing everyone in the goddamned town, including oneself. It wasn’t until Stallone brought the whole thing deep into the woods with First Blood (1982), and got to return to Vietnam to rescue POWs for his troubles in a sequel, that it was clear our boys had finally left the grueling maladjustments of PSD home life behind for good –they were heading back now, to put that bloodlust and apathy to a good cause, rescuing their MIA comrades (see also: Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, etc).
So with all that in mind, and having perhaps recently seen Homeland recently, we know what to expect when crashed pilot William Devane comes home from eight years in the Hanoi Hilton. The film opens with a long drawn-out reception set to some strangely sickening pop country ballad, after Devane and his fellow Hitlon-mate Tommy Lee Jones, are flown home to Texas after being shot down over Hanoi. They seem very still and calm, as if the amount of pain, torture and deprivation they’ve endured have left them zombies ala Deathdream (1972).
Though he’s given a big parade, a big red convertible, kiss from a cute only-slightly-faded hometown beauty queen (Linda Haynes), and a case of silver dollars (one for every day he was away – totaling over two grand), it’s clear his wife has moved on, taken up with a now understandably nervous police officer. None of this-good parts or bad– seems to phase Devane. He only lights up with a smile when some Texas lowlifes stick his hand down the garbage disposal, hoping to get those silver dollars for themselves.
If the similarities between Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver seem almost intentional, know that this too is from a Paul Schrader script (Schrader actually wrote Rolling Thunder before Taxi Driver). In fact if you want to figure out where Schrader leaves off and Scorsese begins just compare the two climactic cathouse shoot-outs: Marty’s is a lurid LES horror show bathed in pink light with ingenious low ceiling tracking shots, the other is a straightforward R-rated blast-em up, directed by John Flynn, an underrated side figure in the drive-in era for his deadpan anything-can-happen vividness and attention to seedy details, supplying the carnage with the same po-faced cool as with which Devane shrugs off the proffered sex with his been-around-the-block San Antoine beauty queen, Linda, who tags along but never quite breaks through to him.
With his strange nose and froglike lower face, and ever-present aviator shades, William Devane is a strange leading man; when he speaks its in a peculiar, relaxed drawl that resembles Jack Nicolson’s, and the only time he really smiles are after sex with Linda and when about to charge into battle with fellow ex-POW Tommy Lee Jones and when hearing his bones crack.
The most searing-in-the-brain moments aren’t even the cathartic bloodbath, which for all its shotgun blasts is strangely bloodless (no hand being shot off ala Taxi Driver) and we never see Devane’s own bloody stump, BUT we do get to see him drive his hook up into a deserving crotch, which automatically bumps any revenge film a star or two. And most of all, there’s that chill Devane’s brilliantly flatline performance brings. Caught halfway between Travis Bickle, Steve McQueen, and Andy Brooks’ undead Monkey’s Paw Deathdream vet. It should never be missed.
The blu-ray, in brief, from Shout!, looks perfect: the grain you demand is all there. Extras are just right in amount: Most of the cast show up in the making-of doc, along with commercials. Devane compares his character to to John McCain! Tommy Lee Jones says “it was the first of its genre.” Everyone did all their own stunts, and Tommy Lee Jones had a masterful hold on his character; we also learn the way the script was taken from Schrader’s anti-war hands and spruced with stuff written by an actual draftee, Haywood Gould. Unfortunately pulp director Flynn died in 2007, which was, as critic Nick Pinkerton observed, “little noted, though his no-BS way of laying down a story is a rare commodity in any era. God bless him and his service to this genre!