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Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1973)

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Michael Cimino was one of those directors bound to end up an outsider artist for his unfiltered expression of intimate emotions, and this can be seen as early as his relatively lowkey debut, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. It's a story about two lost men -- a subtly thoughtful Clint Eastwood already wearing the years and wielding the self-awareness of experience & a youthful Jeff Bridges already having proven his potential as an aimless youth in The Last Picture Show a few years earlier -- desperate to carve out a place in the world. This tale that winds across a wide range of tones & genres in a search for settlement was released during a time when morale in the United States of America was low & bound to go lower still from a sense of confused priorities & betrayal by leadership denying the country's founding stock a role at peace with human yearnings. Before exploring this fragmentation & misdirection more directly in the racial conflicts of Year of the Dragon and the waste of working-class warriors in The Deer Hunter, Cimino's debut demonstrates a love for home & an aching desire to better grasp a sense of that belonging.

Our introduction to the titular protagonists is practically in media res for how quickly they end up in trouble, the only state they seem to be able to say in for long. Somewhere in the thinly populated Midwest plains, Clint Eastwood's protagonist pastors a church as tiny as a shotgun shack; his sermon to about three dozen members exhorts us as imperfect humans to mellow ourselves so as to bring about a defanged coexistence so that "the leopard shall lie down with the kid." What follows isn't that peaceful ideal, as a shady stranger walks in to spray gunfire at Eastwood's perplexed parson. Meanwhile, a smiley, bright-eyed Jeff Bridges saunters into a car lot with a fake limp (implying a war injury) to lower the salesman's guard before speeding off in a Transam he hasn't paid for; incidentally, this carefree carjacker will go on to steal over half a dozen more vehicles over the course of the film. On his joyride, Bridges witnesses Eastwood running for his life from the gunman & decides to run over the latter & allow the former to hitch along since neither has a plan on what to do next but both know they don't wanna be here.

The two share their enigmatic names: Eastwood's leery, wheel-spinning fugitive quietly frustrated at finding himself back on the run again & again is Thunderbolt, and Bridges's impulsively energetic drifter who simply goes & does whatever seems interesting to him is Lightfoot. One wonders if these names are permanent aliases, but in any case, the labels fit these wanderers. They have an uneasy alliance, with the grizzled Thunderbolt wanting to retreat into solitude as soon as possible but deciding to stick with the fascinated & accommodating Lightfoot when it seems he can't elude his pursuers alone. After some close shaves, Thunderbolt reveals himself to be part of a band of broke Korean war vets turned bank robbers, and his cohorts are after him because they think he's behind the demise of their old boss & has their last heist's stash. This delights the curious Lightfoot, whose past is comprised of nothing more concrete than being sent to boarding school but opting to get off the train early to rail a cute chick for a few days, going on to see wherever his charisma & sense of adventure take him since he doesn't know how to stop. The man who can't escape his past & the man with no roots to speak of decide to team up to recover Thunderbolt's team's hidden money & make some unforgettable memories while they're at it.

Journeying across vast, empty plains in search of a stolen treasure from the past does subtly entail a longing to find existential purpose, to own possessions & achievements, even if integration into a larger social whole seems impossible. Thunderbolt, for all his years & rough experiences that continue to haunt him, struggles to grasp connections & is awkwardly incompatible when Lightfoot effortlessly procures some babes to liven up their hotel room. And while Lightfoot is an unconscious natural blessed with great genes & no compunctions, he's totally disintegrated from society & seems incapable of building any lasting relationship with individuals or communities, instead looking to join the quest of an elder in the hopes of some foundation to manifest itself in the process. While lacking any integration in society, the homeless hombres do enjoy sharing excitements as unusual as a battle with a rabbit farmer & pleasures as simple as a boat ride up the river.

An abundance of quiet time allows for room to consider one's place in a vast, relatively new & unsettled country. Civilization is far & few between miles of highway, and even stops in towns feel ghostly in their transitoriness. The figures of humans & their vehicles are as likely to look dwarfed by the postcard American wildernesses around them as they are to share equal space with the elements to showcase a grounding, in-the-moment physicality: not just heavy fistfights & such but also that as mundane as sauntering around the roads, sitting by the rivers, looking up at the mountains. When significant events, whether they be incidental episodes or life-changing incidents such as those in the final quarter of the film, do occur, they stand out as a disruption of the usual silence of the setting. These memorable misadventures manifest themselves in what film analyst Bruno Andrade articulates as a surrealism not synonymous with vulgar weirdness so much as "exploration aimed at abolishing the artificial distances that would exist between what is exceptional & what is familiar." In other words, Cimino's direction treasures the strange among the ordinary, the ordinary among the strange -- strange being not only the bizarre but also the disconnected. Indeed, Cimino's protagonists, ranging from outsider criminals & restrained reformers to venturing frontiersmen & scarred veterans, find themselves chasing after some destroyed innocence that may be lost, but there are life-affirming (not necessarily happy yet still character defining) moments of awe along their incongruent way.

This trek meets an unfortunate complication when the loot's location, a one-room schoolhouse, turns out to have been displaced by a new building, leaving our heroes unsure of what to do next. To add insult to injury, Thunderbolt's two former crewmates in war & crime, the irritable Red Leary (a jowly George Kennedy) & the nervous Eddie Goodie (a wiry Geoffrey Lewis), catch up to them in order to engage in a fistfight rendered somewhat silly by its inconsequentiality & location in the beautiful outdoors. This doesn't give anyone anything but a few bruises, so after everyone calms down with some loafing by the river & a defeated drive back to the nearest town, Lightfoot has the audacity to suggest they all simply rob a bank together as they did in that fateful incident years before. This recursion seems absurd, but without any better ideas, Thunderbolt & his bandits agree to run through the motions again (as closely as possible with Lightfoot on board instead of a missing original mate) in order to get new money.

How the film changes gears from a wandering road trip to a meticulous heist setup showcases a desperate search for an outlet of masculine energy, with the downtime in between offering its own fascinating observations about misapplied lives. The four must take on jobs local to the targeted vault in order to gather crucial intel & resources, offering the audience a chance to observe the drifters in something resembling an attempt at normal living. Thunderbolt works as a welder & keeps his hurt unspoken when a sultry secretary asking for his social security number -- "I've forgotten it," he evades -- snubs his inept small talk in favor of flirting with a seemingly unlikable coworker who flashes security guards on his free time; at least knowing these weirdos gives him some info on the vault's alarm system & such. Landscaping Lightfoot has no problem getting it on with an inviting house lady in a scenario that wouldn't be out of place in a porno from The Big Lebowski, and soon afterward he's stolen his sixth or so set of wheels & is catcalling less interested girls on the road. Goodie becomes an unassuming ice cream truck driver whom Leary (who is also becoming increasingly irate with the cheery Lightfoot) mocks for wearing the uniform despite wearing one himself as a mall's night watchman. Each bandit seems either unable or unwilling to integrate socially, with the heist promising a grand rebellious gesture to carry them into presumably indefinite comfort.

The heist itself is a thrilling coordination spanning multiple players addressing crucial security system points across an entire town, but they fall crushingly short of victory. An initially integral (if bizarre for involving such elements as an anti-aircraft gun & Jeff Bridges in drag) execution has a fatally visible slip-up that tips off the cops, who see through the thieves' post-robbery attempt to hide out as innocuous viewers at a drive-in theater. The narcissistic Leary freaks out & betrays his own crewmates, leaving an injured Goodie for dead, brutally bludgeoning Lightfoot in a spite-fuelled smackdown, and getting caught & killed after trying to take all the money for himself. An attempt to retrace steps & reunite with former comrades has proven totally futile in large part due to the selfishness of a bitter old man, leaving an injured Thunderbolt & Lightfoot back at square one: no money, no connections, no progress.

This giant loop concludes in yet another bewildering recurrence. Wandering around after the failed mission, the two survivors stumble across that legendary school where the loot from Thunderbolt's old heist was hidden. Apparently, the tiny antique building was moved to be a roadside attraction: "History, damn it," reasons Eastwood's aging veteran. He & a deteriorating Lightfoot -- Leary did a number kicking the poor kid in the head; his confident saunter has been replaced with a dazed stagger, and ominously he dons what looks like Thunderbolt's parson clothes from the beginning of the film -- are in almost wordless awe to find the millions hidden behind the unoccupied room's blackboard. Sure enough, Thunderbolt buys in cash that white Cadillac he & Lightfoot had been craving, with no further plans than to see what's over the next mountain: still no future but what's about to happen in the present.

But Lightfoot is dropping out fast; as his life slips away before his horrified hero Thunderbolt, Bridges lets loose a bittersweet, pained-but-not-unrestrained performance up there with Orson Welles's Falstaff beholding in agony & admiration the standards he didn't live up to in Chimes at Midnight. "I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel like we accomplished something, a good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero." This ecstasy -- and an earnest desire to share it -- is the state in which he chooses to leave his prematurely ended life. Regardless of how little control he had over the situation, Lightfoot cherishes the actions he took & the curiosities he experienced. The emotional gut punch isn't lost on Thunderbolt, who's already been quietly carrying burdens like an isolating cocoon before losing the friend who proved a foil most loyal & dynamic in what they shared & challenged each other to do. He's got the gold but lost the audience of a companion. Whether these nigh-miraculous treasures, lost & found, will embolden this fugitive from the past or leave him just as stranded in limbo as before, he's gonna carry that weight.


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Freeman shows you the hidden methods & meanings of media in its varying forms.

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