“Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?”
“That’s the only kind that’s left.”
Rolling Thunder is the Platonic ideal of gritty B-movie revenge thrillers—mimicked since by half-a-thousand Cinemax potboilers, but never matched. A soldier returns home to Texas, after years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, to find himself an alien on an alien planet. His wife has cheated on him, and his son has forgotten him. The grammar of everyday life eludes him. The moral codes he supposedly fought for seem to have evaporated. He prefers to sleep in the woodshed instead of the house, because it’s small and he can be alone. He’s betrayed, then robbed. In the end he returns to the only language that he feels comfortable with: violence.
William Devane is fantastic, almost feral, in the (barely speaking) lead role, with Linda Haynes and a young Tommy Lee Jones lending strong support. Co-writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is critical of the film for its divergence from the intent of his original draft. The director, John Flynn, was a talented craftsman who never rose to that level again, and according to William Goldman the preview test screening was so legendarily negative that the audience “got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present.” Yet the film’s respect has only grown with each passing decade.