‘Thumper’ is an Unmissable and Taut Crime Thriller
Bambi is nowhere to be found in this story riddled with poverty, meth and violence.
Thumper opens with a bit of misdirection. We’re drawn into the chaotic and clustered home life of Wyatt (Pablo Schreiber), a charismatic, larger than life figure whom we soon learn looms large in the poverty-stricken, unnamed California neighborhood. With a child on one hip, Wyatt scrambles through empty kitchen cabinets, trying to salvage together breakfast for his two children. The house is messy, littered with toys and mismatched furniture, but Wyatt is the perfect picture of a doting father, showering both children with genuine affection that belies his tattooed shaved head.
But once his children have shuffled off with their mother, we see a different side of Wyatt. When Troy (Grant Harvey) comes into the house, unexpectedly bringing along Beaver (Daniel Webber), Wyatt is outraged and starts menacing the two teenagers. Eventually, he brings them to a padlocked shed in his backyard where he cooks crystal meth. Troy is short on cash due to a “slow month” and Beaver pipes up, offering to sell product for Wyatt. In response, Wyatt pins the boy up against a cabinet, threatening to spill a container of chemicals into his eyes. When he feels Beaver has been scared enough into keeping his mouth shut, Wyatt lets him go. From here, the film picks up with Beaver and a new girl in his high school, Kat (Eliza Taylor). This story isn’t about Wyatt but he will affect it in a dangerous way.
This subtle shift, where things aren’t what they seem to be, where danger — real danger — lurks under every surface, is woven throughout Thumper, the directorial debut of Jordan Ross, who also wrote the film. Executive produced by Cary Fukunaga, Thumper doesn’t have the same dizzying conspiracy theory terror that was woven into the first season of True Detective, but it deftly exposes a similar hopeless seediness, one kept tucked away from middle-class America but one infused with stories and struggles that are just as important to explore.
When Kat accepts an invitation to party with Beaver and his friends, it brings her to an abandoned lot where her new peers converge to sip vodka from the bottle of backseats, tag up on crumbling walls and pass around blunts. From here, she plunges headfirst into this new life, held afloat by the proliferation of drugs, booze and parties at Troy’s house. But Kat remains on the outskirts, keeping the drugs and sex at arms length while harboring her own dark secret that will soon worm its way into the close knit group of friends.
Kat begins to connect with Beaver, getting insight into his troubled home life where he cares for a younger brother with Down Syndrome and protects him from their abusive father. Beaver hopes to save up enough money to take his brother out west, where he can attend a better school and have a better life. Here, Kat sees firsthand how the influx of drugs, while providing an escape from a truly harsh reality, also allow economic possibilities otherwise not available. But sandwiched alongside this we hear of overdoses ravaging the community and see how the teens have become addicted to the drugs outside of weekend partying, reminding us that life is never quite as black and white as we would like it to be.
As a newcomer, Kat finds herself accepted by everyone but Wyatt, the de facto leader of the group, who has already established himself as unpredictable and violent and who will do anything to keep himself out of jail and his business booming. When Kat’s secret is finally exposed, it results in an eruption of violence and tension that threatens not only her life, but also the lives of her newfound friends.
Thumper succeeds due to a well-written script elevated by a number of strong performances, including lead actress Eliza Taylor, who shines as the complex and multi-layered Kat, as well as Daniel Webber, who brings depth to Beaver, elevating him from a lovable loser to complicated and tortured teen seeking something better for himself. But it is Pablo Schreiber who truly stands out as the menacing Wyatt, giving an electric and commanding performance that will be talked about long after the film’s release. Alongside his role as Mad Sweeney in Starz’ adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Schreiber seems poised to have a breakout year that will reward his immense talent.
Although some curious viewers may initially be drawn to Thumper due to Fukunaga’s involvement, they won’t be disappointed with what they discover: a dark and subversive thriller that exposes the underbelly of crime and poverty not for shock value but instead to expose the uncomfortable parallels between our tidy lives and the messy secrets we try to keep locked inside.