Breaking Bad had Badger. Thumper has Beaver. Hard drugs make lovable saps out of all its low-level dealers named after furry critters—this innocuousness isn’t a mistake. TO put it broadly, as of late, crime entertainment has been slowly dismantling the romanticized idea of cooks, kingpins and high-level dealers, instead emphasizing the unrewarding workaday nature of its entry-level employees. These dealers, recruited out of high school or younger, become indentured servants to their drug, their social circle or both: It’s the only way out of their circumstances and it’s certainly the only way to keep getting a fix. Thumper, a film about such a community, withholds its primary plot device until it visually explains its environment, its town and its drugs.
The hard-nosed drama begins by building the lives it touches before introducing the idea that we’re seeing such drama from inside of a performance. Beaver (Daniel Webber), a high schooler roped into the dealing scene, isn’t Thumper’s main character at all; rather, the main character is the girl Beaver invites to get drunk at an abandoned factory, a date which tells you more about the working class town than its unemployment percentage. She’s Kat Carter (Eliza Taylor)—well, not really. She’s actually an undercover Narc, 21 Jump Street-ing in the most dangerous circles to try to find out the origin of the community’s disproportionate amount of overdose deaths.
Thumper weaves a few junkyard love stories into its tangled web of drug industry tension and deception, sympathizing with even its cruelest characters. This isn’t a movie whose grit comes from its subject matter. The grimy lawns full of furniture that doesn’t seem to belong on them, let alone inside of the overstuffed homes that threaten to topple over, signal that proud criminals (even the kids) could be natural consequences of this environment. Powerful set design (and what must be location scouting) show a world on the verge of breaking, of struggle that will never admit to it, of contrast when Kat ventures back to her “real life” in the suburbs. The cleanliness, the spaciousness, the bright green lawns and khakis of privilege are startling.
Over the course of her investigation into Beaver’s ring, led by a war veteran cook played by Pablo Schreiber in one of the most effortlessly frightening performances ever to make me still feel sorry for the character, facades keep building up and breaking down. Beaver wants to impress Kat and ingratiate himself into the inner circle of his drug affiliates, with Webber adding such pained earnestness to his naive desperation for acceptance that his mopey puppy face overwhelms his attempts at being hard.
Kat, aside from her obvious deception, is also attempting to justify her life choices to her police-cliché-spouting boss (Lena Headey in the film’s one poorly-written role, though she’s still excellent when authoritative) and her ex-husband. If she can explain why her job is so important, maybe she’ll start to believe it herself. That so much is placed on the shoulders of Eliza Taylor shows immense respect for the actress, and she never disappoints. Weighing her two lives against each other, she lashes out and searches for sweetness where she can, implying an internalized anger due to her job that explains away large swathes of backstory with a simple change in tone or a silently balled fist.
Even Schreiber’s character can’t fully accept himself for what he is. He’s pushing meth on teens, but maintains some strange personal code of dignity. He describes himself as an entrepreneur, a businessman and turns down the inevitable offer of sex for drugs with a simple “you’re better than this.” At the same time, he’s a libertarian barbarian, ruthless and racist to his core. He radiates heat from face tattoos worn like battle scars and an imposing physicality made dirtier and a bit more savage by his bushy beard and snarling delivery. He jokes, pranks and laughs but each seems like a threat, bleakness building around these people in an ever-evolving series of incidences. Simple hangouts become terrifying once we understand Kat’s position, while Beaver’s growing infatuation becomes more addictive once we realize it is our only respite from the film’s unforgiving intensity.
As the investigation draws closer and closer to capturing the cook, director/writer Jordan Ross knows exactly how to crank up the pressure, turning mundane conversations into nightmares of hate. Ross allows us the specificity and space to both understand his films’ stakes and then draw hypothetical conclusions. Because of that, Thumper is a heart-in-throat drama wherein you know what will happen, and it’s all the more dreadful for it. Inevitability grows like the shadow of the setting sun. Its climax covers us with darkness.
Director: Jordan Ross
Writers: Jordan Ross
Starring: Eliza Taylor, Lena Headey, Pablo Schreiber, Daniel Webber
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.