Trying to pin a pat moral to a film like “Rolling Thunder,” a movie of the “boy, Vietnam sure fucked a generation of young men” genre wrapped in salty revenge movie pulpiness, is pointless. Co-written by Paul Schrader and in many ways reminiscent of his earlier work on “Taxi Driver,” this 1977 film balances nihilism with a broad but damning political bent. It opens with former POWs Maj. Charles Rane (William Devane) and Master Sgt. Johnny Vohden (a baby-faced, Frankenstein-looking Tommy Lee Jones) sitting aboard an airplane bound for Rane’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas. We see a crowd of people eagerly awaiting their return; a school marching band is warming up, people are holding handmade signs. A hero’s welcome.
But once the warm reception ends and Rane’s given his “congrats on surviving a torture camp” door prizes (a chest of $2,555 silver dollars corresponding to his days in captivity plus a cherry-red Cadillac), he returns home to a young son who doesn’t know him and a wife who has moved on in his absence, engaged to some guy named Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll). Rane’s an outsider in a town that has put Vietnam behind them. And when the affable Cliff approaches Rane with some beers as a way to say, “hey, sorry I’ve been screwing your wife and bossing your kid around,” we really start to understand the extent of Rane’s madness. What starts as lightweight Guy Talk quickly unravels into sado-sexual role-play as Rane demands that Cliff inflict on him the rope torture he underwent twice a day in Vietnam. “HIGHER, MAN, HIGHER!” he screams when Cliff doesn’t do it right, and adds, “You learn to love the rope. That’s how you beat it.”
It’s around this time that “Rolling Thunder” switches gears from “brutal domestic drama” to “absurdly violent revenge thriller” as Rane returns home to find strangers waiting for him. The men boast names like “T Bird” and “Automatic Slim” because oh yeah this is at its heart a sleazy B-movie. News of Rane’s celebrity traveled far and the men want Rane’s largess of silver dollars. Rane refuses, not out of necessity or pride but because he’s been conditioned never to submit to enemy aggressors. When Rane responds to their threats with a recitation of his name and service number, they stuff his hand in a garbage disposal. Oh yeah, and they shoot his wife and son in front of him once they get what they came for. “How’s it feel to go through all that shit for nothing?!” might’ve come from the mouth of one of the thugs, but really it’s a question Rane’s been asking himself since he returned to San Antonio.
After receiving some psychotic words of encouragement from a recently re-enlisted Vohden (“You can’t let it slide, Major. They don’t have any right to live.”), Rane leaves his hospital bed with a sharpened hook for a hand, a sawed-off shotgun, and a renewed sense of purpose. Linda, a waitress whose attraction to Rane is half rock-star crush/half genuine affection, unwittingly joins Rane on his rampage across the border. Despite her best efforts, Linda’s attempts to reach Rane and dissuade him from his crusade fail. Ditching her at a hotel with a bundle of cash to make her way home, he trades her in for a more suitable lover . . . er, accomplice: Vohden.
Practically rescued from a suburban hellscape and overbearing in-laws, Vohden is all too pleased to blow off a family meal so he and Rane can shoot up a whorehouse harboring the remaining gang members who took his hand. Vohden and Rane are truly alive for the first time, wearing their uniforms into battle. There’s a flash of boyish glee on Tommy Lee Jones’ face as he ducks around a staircase and fires at the men below. This is something familiar to Rane and Vohden, something they’re good at, something they enjoy. As they head out into the night, we don’t know where Rane and Vohden are heading. But we know it’s nowhere good.