An Idaho sky so opaquely blue it looks like wet latex paint. Two small figures running from one end of a field to the other, taking their time, proceeding at a pace more appropriate to clouds or boats than limbs-a-flailing humans. Cut to a medium shot than pans quickly to follow a gangly pastor with two-tone-fade glasses. Cut to a fat, mustachioed assassin in sunglasses and sun-hat chasing him. Then, a white-and-blue Pontiac Trans-Am comes a-roaring and mows down the pursuer. The pastor jumps in through the passenger-side window thread-the-needle style and the Pontiac tears down the highway. An ad hoc partnership is formed, the kind of unlikely 100-minute friendship that movies are so good at setting up.
Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) have nothing in common except their taste for flamboyant polyester outfits that, already in 1974, looked like a parody of 1970s fashion. Michael Cimino’s debut feature offers less in the way of compelling narrative or emotional resonance than it does a sartorial and psycho-social time-capsule. Eastwood’s intricately patterned shirt has lapels so big it looks like he’s got a seagull wrapped around his neck. Bridges wears optical-illusion-inducing patterns also, plus white bellbottoms so tight at the crotch that you almost feel your own circulation being cut off (when he later changes into black leather bellbottoms, there is no improvement).
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot represent both a clash of generations (Eastwood being of the “you are what you do” school of craftsman’s-pride professional burglars while Bridges is just a reckless opportunist) and a repressed homosocial layer of the vulgar American psyche. Costumes play a part in this, pastor-disguised Eastwood stripping off his jacket to reveal a strapped-on shirtfront and detachable collar as he binds himself to a tree with a leather belt and jerks his shoulder back into place with a cathartic grunt. Bridges later dons a wig and a dress (“Don’t forget to shave!” taunt his accomplices) to seduce a lonely security guard. This rent-a-cop character has been introduced to us through an anecdote told by Eastwood’s foundry co-worker in which said co-worker went to shake hands with the security guard but quickly slipped his “pecker” into the guy’s outstretched hand instead, freaking him out. The unlikely mechanics of this scenario aside, why does Eastwood not even flinch at this ribald story? Did adult men regularly play these kinds of pranks on each other in the 1970s? Have we forgotten how casually genitals were introduced into everyday interactions in this hypo-inhibited period in our recent past?
The past looms large in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in the form of incessant nostalgia for a more comprehensible America. From the first verse of the film’s Paul Williams-penned theme song (“Countryside’s changed so much I’d surely end up lost”) to the central plot element of the old, inexplicably vanished one-room schoolhouse, “progress” is a disrupting, disorientating force. The 1841-built schoolhouse has been moved and now has a plaque boasting that it “evokes a vision of a disappeared America,” with tourists inside marveling at the kerosene lamps. The very fact that Thunderbolt and his two former accomplices decide to pull off exactly the same heist they performed five years ago is a further sign that all they want to do is relive the past. And when Lightfoot frames his life of crime in entrepreneurial terms (“I don’t think of us as criminals, you know? I think we did a good job”), is it out of wistfulness for a pre-recession America where there were jobs aplenty and socially justifying your existence was at least a little bit less of a struggle?
T&L is clearly a genre movie, but what genre? Sort of a Bonnie and Clyde-style dropout drifter movie turns into a heist procedural an hour in, with a safe-break reminiscent of Michael Mann’s masterly and significantly more pornographically photographed Thief; Eastwood and accomplice bring a 20mm anti-aircraft gun into the bank and shell their way through the vault’s wall, finesse be damned.
In a movie with no shortage of gratuitously obscene images, two stand out. The first is an Idaho hick who gives the boys a ride only to suddenly lose his mind, pull over, open a trunk filled with rabbits, and start blasting them with a shotgun fish-in-a-barrel style. The second is a teenage couple interrupted mid-secretive-coitus and tied and gagged while the burglars interrogate their banker-dad. Cops find the terrorized adolescents bound together with him still inside her, flashlights in their deer-in-headlights eyes exposing permanently destroyed innocence and indelible trauma.