I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Clint Eastwood’s film performances. He always seemed sullen and rarely believable (even though they seem close to his real-life persona), even though some of his films which he starred in are among my favourites. Conversely, young Jeff Bridges’ boyishness and freewheeling have always made me root for the guy.
Personal taste aside, throwing these two together in a road movie is like combining sea salt with caramel; two contrasting elements that work together to create something that you just know will work well. Like many great road movies of the time, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot combines character study with a topographical glance at the American national psyche, though not quite to the same scathing level as some of its contemporaries.
Eastwood is Thunderbolt, a rural preacher whose violent past quickly catches up with him in the form of bumbling vengeful crooks played by George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis. Bridges is Lightfoot, a carefree car thief who beneath it all is just a lonely kid looking for a buddy (or maybe a daddy figure?). What Lightfoot ends up getting is a kind of moody but caring uncle when he helps Thunderbolt get away from his pursuers, and the two set off on together on their misc
Both quickly settle into their adopted two-member family, and soon they’re rip-roaring across Montana towards a treasure hidden by Thunderbolt and his former colleagues in an old schoolhouse. Along the way they seduce beautiful women (as with many ‘American New Wave’ films, here the 60s sexual liberation manifests itself as women being reduced to sex objects), hitch rides with incomprehensible rabbit-killing rednecks, all while uttering such wonderful phrases as “Do you read?” “I read you loud and clear”, and “Go fuck a duck”.
The first half of the film feels light and brisk. Every time Eastwood’s trademark distractedness and squinting at some point in the mid-long distance starts getting on your nerves, Bridges is there to blithely break him out of his stupour with a wisecrack or appreciation of the nearest beskirted human being that walks past. Bridges’ role is far more than comic relief however, as he brings a sensitivity and neediness to the performance that bagged him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Aside from the myopic goal of robbing an armoury, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seem to have deeper goals that are impossible to reach. Thun. They’re discontent in a way that’s both existential and indicative of its historical moment. In Easy Rider, Wyatt and Billy search for the American dream want to go to Mardi Gras, but the event and the journey goes on to its grim conclusion. In Vanishing Point, Kowalski’s bet to drive across the country is really an excuse to explore an America coming to terms with the end of the Sixties.
Thunderbolt And Lightfoot is not quite as rife with subtext. Some readings point to Lightfoot as being homosexual, but he seems more of a lost child, desperate for the fraternal affection of someone whose values still amount to something in the post-hippie era. Thunderbolt/Eastwood is a thief whose celibate, teetotal attitude (he is a priest, after all) seems to be working out for him. All he thinks about is survival and the next job, but it’s got him by in the film’s desolate depiction of 70s rural America. The message is that the naive Lightfoot/Bridges should take on some of Thunderbolt’s aloof, back-to-basics attitude – and fast – if he too wants to survive.
In the third act, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot tightens its grip on the wheel, and loses some of the haphazard charm from earlier in the film. When the pair make some unexpected allies, the profundity of their relationship gets diluted by the one-dimensional newcomers. A mundane goal gets created in the form of a great heist, and where the film could’ve brought us closer to exploring the characters and the American west, it instead turns into a pretty ordinary crime caper
SPOILER ALERT: If the climactic event of the film was underwhelming, then the tragic ending makes up for it. Semi-explicable and dragged out for an agonising amount of time, Lightfoot’s death by brain aneurysm is a mournful farewell to youth; the 60s spirit going out not with a bang, but slowly shutting down with a prolonged sense of inevitability.
An interactive menu with Jeff Bridges’ crotch in the background, a scene selector, and a Play Movie option. Given the interesting production process of the film which saw it rejected by Warner Bros and Eastwood hand over the reins to first-time director Micheal Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate), you would’ve hoped to see something about it all came together.