Rolling Thunder is a 1977 revenge tale that focuses on Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a man who spent seven years of his life in a Vietnam POW camp but has finally found his way home. Everything appears great at first, as he comes back to a grand homecoming celebration with much of the community there to clap and celebrate in his honor. He is a war hero, a man that survived against all odds and is being recognized by all for his time served.
When Rane and fellow POW, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), make their way back home - even through the gloss of celebration - they clearly have nothing to celebrate. You can see they are hallow men by the empty looks in their eyes, a blank stare caused by spending seven years in hell. Even the interactions Rane has with other people are off, as outside of the "glad you're homes" and the "you are a true heroes," people aren't even sure how to react to Rane, even his own wife.
Everyone thought Rane was most likely dead, and seven years is a lot of time for a women - who bore his child just before he left - to stay alone. She met another man and planned to marry him, and those plans are not changed by Rane coming back home after all these years. Now, Rane is a man that lost everything mentally in Nam, he sacrificed his life, went through horrors that no one should ever go though, and now he comes home only to find out he's lost everything there too. He has nothing…
What Rane does have, unfortunately, is what the lasting effects of his trauma have left on him. He becomes very solitude and while people aren't sure how to react to him, he isn't sure how to go back to normal, especially when normal is not as he left it. In one very telling and uncomfortable scene, Rane has an interaction with another character and decides to show him an example of one of the torture he faced everyday. He does so by acting it out, showing how he learned to deal with the pain he went though. Rane goes a little too far, far to the point where it is clear that he is not yet able to separate himself from what he spent doing for the last seven years. It's almost become a part of his being – it's what he knows.
There is a clear but calm rage in Rane, a rage brought forth by going through what he did, by losing his life and himself. He has no release for this rage, but his opportunity would come when he is even further destroyed. When his return home from Nam was celebrated, he was presented with a red Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars - one for every day he was a prisoner. These gifts are of no value in comparison to what happened to him and the loss he has faced. However, these gifts have plenty value to men that are less than honorable and carry absolutely no value.
Rane is attacked at home by a group of gun totting men who saw all the shiny silver dollars that he received on TV. They want his more than hard earned wealth, but Rane - being as strong as he is due to his recent past - will not give it up too easily. Even when they torture him, it is for not, and while Rane might not want to give up what is his because of sternness, he also may want to be tortured, because that is all he now knows. Rane's soon to be ex-wife and son come home right as all of this is happening, and afraid for his father's life, his son tells them where the silver dollars are.
Unfortunately, when the thieves get the money, they kill his wife, his son and shoot Rane, but he doesn't die. Rane, who essentially had nothing, did at least have one thing, a chance to become the father to his son. Now that chance is gone, and while they left Rane for dead, he isn't, and now this is his opportunity to get out all the rage that is built up inside of him. Rane can exorcise all of his demons, and these demons are on a collision course with a group of men that made the biggest mistake of their lives, wronging the devil.
It's incredibly bleak with how Rane gets this almost meaningless payment for his time served, or, for his pain served - I should say. Sadly, it is this payment for pain that would only serve to cost him even more heartache. The only way to get this heartache out is to go after the men who did this to him, to take out all of his suffering that he has endured for the past seven plus years, and all of it is going to come down on them.
He now has a purpose again and a reason to live, which is to kill those that took the very last thing he had. All of that emptiness, all of that anger and all of the pain will be projected onto taking revenge on these men. He's a dead man with a goal, and at one point, he even says to a female that he befriends: "My eyes are open, I'm looking at you, but I'm dead." That line alone is very telling of this character and where he is in his life, or lack thereof.
Directed by John Flynn, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, Rolling Thunder is a revenge film, yes, but not one that is exploitative like many of it's time. It is more a deep character study, one that has been seen in plenty of movies involving characters coming home from war, only to be something other than what they left as. It's well made, rough around the edges and gritty but avoids the over the top aspect of many films of the genre, until the films climax where shit hits the fan, and the payoff is given with an amazing little whore house set gun battle that is sure to pump up even the lamest of viewers.
Rolling Thunder's performances are great from all, especially Devane, who has a lot of shit laying on his character shoulders, and he carries it well. I also found Linda Haynes (who plays his love interest and possible path back to some form of happiness) to be really good and a character that developed quite well as the film went along. Of course, I have to touch on Tommy Lee Jones, who has the coldest look in his eyes and is simply great in his small but important role. You can really see why he became the star he did, and it is awesome seeing him play a character like this…I only wish he had done it more.
Rolling Thunder is a very subtle but powerful film that works as a window into what many have gone through but few can truly understand. Sometimes what you see when you look through such a window is devastating, but it is something we all should see from time to time as a reminder of other's suffering.