The film is a mixture of a revenge story and that of the forgotten soldier; the veteran who has been caught in a war that the world has passed by, and a world that has left him behind; about the pain and torture that doesn't seem to end; the anger these returning soldiers carry with them through their return, and the inescapable need for revenge.
He finds that the changes to his home life are irreversible and when a group of men come to his home to take what little he has left he returns to what he knows and seeks out a single minded revenge.
Rolling Thunder is apparently one of the films that Quentin Tarantino cites as an influence, as does Eli Roth, and you can understand why as there is a lot of interesting subtext to the story, mainly around the idea of spending years in prison and forgotten by the world to be suddenly released only to find that so much has passed them by that there's nothing left for them with their experience has left them feeling dead inside.
It also presents a revenge story which actually has little violence to it, an instigating violent act and a closing sequence of out and out revenge action, but between the two the film is thoughtful and considering, examining the relationships and interactions of the characters more than the film you were perhaps expecting.
While this perhaps gives the impression of a powerful film and thought provoking film I did feel that the main character and the story could have given more to the audience.
As it is I felt far too much is left unsaid and unexplored and leaves the audience in a place where, if they don't make some big assumptions and leaps of faith on behalf of the lead characters, they might get the wrong impression of their feelings and motives and find that there's just no way to connect or sympathise with him.
That's certainly how I felt for a good deal of the first and indeed second act. It was a fight to care for the character and there were times his actions moved from not caring to malicious and perhaps a little aloof which really did affect my enjoyment of the film. I could feel myself straining with desperation hoping for the characters to give a little more than they did, just give us something to confirm what we think is happening with the lead and why he's behaving this way. I'm sure there are going to people who'll watch it who won't get the more than subtle hints at what the characters are thinking and their motives.
It does take some time for us to understand a little behind his motives, and it takes a single sentence of just a few words that I wish we'd had much earlier on in the film or more made of it. I think this would have given us much more of an understanding of where the characters are and explain a lot about their reactions towards each other and the events around them. Instead we're left in the cold to either give up on them or keep going and stay with it.
Of course if you do stay with it you are rewarded. It is a little rough around the edges but it is surprisingly gritty and in places a little more brutal than you might be expecting - it's a surprise to hear in the audio commentary that the film had to be cut back as at the first few screenings people were walking out of the cinema either upset or actually being physically ill. Of course watching the film nowadays it doesn't have the same impact, but you can appreciate that it did at the time.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a good performance earlier on in his career with William Devane doing well in the lead, although to be fair he has little to really do for the most part. I think acting wise the performance from the young actress Linda Haynes is the best and the most interesting of the film.
The picture does show its age but has a cinematography that in places is surprisingly dark but adds a great tone to the scenes, a tone that carries well through the interior sequences.
The sound is pretty disappointing, I would have thought that the re-release would have seen something even approaching a high definition audio stream, and by that I mean it could have even taken a leap towards stereo.
Audio Commentary with co-screenwriter Heywood Gould and moderated by Roy Frumkes; Interview with Linda Haynes; Original Theatrical Trailer with Audio Commentary from Eli Roth
Audio Commentary with co-screenwriter Heywood Gould and moderated by Roy Frumkes
The audio commentary provides for a lot of great information on how the writing on this project progressed and how a screenwriter fits in with the film production, although there is a lot that Heywood Gould says himself he can't talk about. It is an interesting commentary and would have been even better with Paul Schrader or some more of the crew involved.
Interview with Linda Haynes
There are a few interesting pieces to be had from the interview but there's just not enough from the supporting star, and it would have been much better to have included interviews with the leads or more guidance of the interview to gleam more information from her.
Original Theatrical Trailer with Audio Commentary from Eli Roth
This is a little interesting but it's all too short, it would have been great to have had a full commentary of the film from Roth or perhaps even Tarantino.
Rolling Thunder is an interesting and a thought provoking thriller but you do have to watch it with a mindset of the time. You can clearly see how it led to a number of other revenge type thrillers and influenced directors such as Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino. Still it does rely far too much on the quiet unemotional lead and needs a little more from the performance and the script to deliver more to move the story along and help the audience understand the character.
The DVD offering is quite lacking. It's good that there's an audio commentary and it has one of the writers to give us insight into the story and the production. However the audio is still mono and that's a huge surprise especially since the film is also being released on Blu-ray and digital.