“You just never know who’s gonna walk through this door.”
It would be redundant, I’m sure, to call 2009’s “Thor at the Bus Stop” a quirky, little, low-budget independent film. I mean, “quirky,” “little,” and “low-budget” practically define independent productions, and this one certainly qualifies on all counts, an odd duck that combines a little comedy, parody, and pathos into a fantasy about the Norse god Thor wandering the suburbs of Las Vegas. No, it’s not the Chris Hemsworth Thor; this one is the Jerry Thompson Thor, Thompson having co-starred in, co-written, and co-directed the project with his brother Mike. It’s their first full-length feature, the picture getting a video treatment from VCI Entertainment after playing at the Austin and Cinevegas Film Festivals in 2009. Whether you like the movie or not will probably depend on your tolerance for quirky, little low-budget films. I found it rather sweet and poignant.
The Thompsons based the movie on several short films they had already made, and the result feels as though they had assembled it from bits and pieces of other things. “Thor” has the lean, meandering, easygoing style reminiscent of many indie films, only this one does a fairly good job of eventually connecting the dots. So the rambling isn’t necessarily random.
The story comprises a series of brief anecdotes involving a passel of colorful characters whose lives intersect in any number of clever ways. All of the tales revolve around Thor (Jerry Thompson), god of thunder and lightning, who tells us he’s come to Earth to fight a giant serpent, save the world, and die; but, he says, no one will ever know about it or even care. He’s depressed by the thought, and needing a bus ride to find the snake doesn’t help. As he waits at various bus stops in the Vegas suburbs, he encounters a number of people, each with his or her own issues.
Three people in the story observe all of this. The first two are George (Andrew Jacobsen) and Abe (Jason Harris), a couple of buddies who ponder and philosophize on the existential nature of the universe. The other fellow who watches much of this unfold is Ultra Stan the Every Man (Joe Berry), a pizza-delivery guy whose crosstown driving brings him into contact with many of the other characters.
Among the folks they (and we) meet are, first, White Trash Chuck (Mike Thompson), an angry young man who enjoys kicking over garbage cans and intimidating anyone smaller than he is. What he really wants to be is cool, which brings up one of the film’s major themes: how to be cool.
Two more characters are Big Zed (G. Scott Thompson; yeah, those Thompsons are everywhere) and Lil’ Fred (Bob Shaughnessy), a pair of petty thieves so dumb their biggest score is a box of “Fruit Snacks.”
Then, there is Lester (Robert Shupe), one of Chuck’s old classmates, now suffering from a “Yield” sign stuck through his chest that no one else seems to notice. Although Lester later gets struck by lightning and shot in the shoulder, like the Energizer bunny he just keeps on going. And there’s Detective Mergatroy (Jason Neistadt), investigating sudden lightning strikes around the city, some of them reducing citizens to small ash heaps. And there’s Bernard Barnard (Barrett Applegate), a sleazy TV newscaster looking for a controversial story. And there are Passenger Seat Pete (Chris McInroy), a Mr. Nice Guy in the Owen Wilson mold; and his girlfriend, Trish (Dana Bomar), who wants him to be more assertive, to be more of a jerk. And then there is a seemingly erudite gentleman (Nathaniel Hansen) handcuffed in the back of a police car and left alone for most of the movie. Remember “Airplane” with California politician Howard Jarvis waiting in the back seat of a cab the whole film? Same thing here. Looking very dapper in a white suit and white fedora, the mysterious man in the car may be a serial killer or a child molester, we never find out, and we’re better off not knowing, just guessing.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is One-Way Walter (Carlos Mathis-Johnson), a polite carjacker and possible murderer with the power of cool. Walter is the most-distinctive character in the movie, and Mathis-Johnson is the most charismatic and accomplished actor of the lot.
As one might expect of a low-budget effort, the movie doesn’t look as polished as a big studio production and doesn’t benefit from many experienced actors. That’s part of its charm, of course. With the exception of Thor, for instance, the players seem to be wearing mainly their everyday clothes. Moreover, the Thompsons appear to have shot the film in and around the same few neighborhoods on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and the homes easily substitute for any housing tracts in America. So, it all works out pretty well in its Everyman, everywhere, sort of symbolic approach.
Anyway, while some of its humor falls flat, “Thor at the Bus Stop” is mostly amusing in its own deadpan manner, the assorted skits lazily weaving their humorous courses into and through one another. I didn’t find any huge, laugh-out-loud gags in the film, just a succession of gently comical moments. In fact, the film’s convoluted narrative style may remind viewers of “Pulp Fiction,” with some of the laid-back whimsy of “The Big Lebowski” thrown in. In the case of the latter, the Thompson brothers may be experiencing a bit of Coen envy, and that’s not a bad thing.
The Thompsons seem to have shot the film digitally; at least, that would be the cheapest way to have done it, and it’s clear the brothers didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lavish production values. More to the point, the film simply looks digitally shot, meaning the picture quality is basically soft and flat, framed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. At least, that’s what we see on the VCI transfer. There is not a lot of sharp definition to the images, the delineation somewhat vague. Still, the colors are decent enough, never too bright and fairly natural. Understand at the outset this is not “Lawrence of Arabia,” and you’ll enjoy it.
The keep case does not indicate anything more than that the audio is Dolby Digital. From what the readout on my player says, it appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. However, it is a very narrow stereo, so don’t expect too much. It also sounds very limited in frequency range and dynamic response. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is largely dialogue and background music, so the DD 2.0 doesn’t have to do much to succeed, and it is reasonably smooth and quiet, which are important virtues.
Given the film’s meager budget, there is a surprisingly ample number of extras on the DVD. First, there’s an audio commentary by the Thompsons and others that sounds as though they made the film just to be able to talk about it. After all, as they imply, you’re not a real filmmaker until you’ve done a DVD commentary on one of your own films.
After that is a twenty-five minute making-of documentary; an eight-minute “Short vs. Feature” mash-up; a twenty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; an eight-minute gag reel of outtakes; a thirteen-minute short film, “Passenger Seat,” a precursor to the feature film; a twelve-minute Cinevegas Q & A session; a soundtrack sampler; and three music videos made by the filmmakers: A Crowd of Small Adventures music video, “Bang, Bang”; a Hungry Crowd video, “Hey Hey”; and a Kid Meets Cougar video, “We Are Alive.”
The extras conclude with a widescreen theatrical trailer; no scene-selections menu but over twenty chapter stops you can access with the “Next” button on your remote; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
I don’t think you’re going to mistake “Thor at the Bus Stop” for a major Oscar winner, yet if you’re like me, you may find the longer you watch it, the more you’ll like it. As I said at the beginning, the Thompsons have made a sweet, humorous, poignant little film here. For a first-time, low-budget, feature-length effort, it’s not bad.
In closing, let me also add that there is nothing about “Thor” that is offensive, crude, or gross. Unlike most of Hollywood’s big-screen comedies anymore, “Thor” contains no profanity, no nudity, no sex, and virtually no violence. It’s kind of refreshing, actually.
“There’s only two ways to act. Just two ways: Either be cool. Or not. That’s it, man.”