It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
In the forbidding, somber forests of the Pacific Northwest, mountain men live in house trailers or makeshift huts, living off the land. They hunt, they fish, sometimes they drink too much, sometimes they are possessed by terrifying outbursts of violence. These are some of the thousands of Vietnam veterans who have not successfully rejoined civilian life. The medical name for their condition is post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience it as hallucinations, sleeplessness, rage and suicidal depression. Their favored method of suicide is "kissing a train," walking head on into an uncoming freight.
In the opening scenes of "Distant Thunder," we meet one of those men, Mark Lambert (John Lithgow). He is as depressed and alienated as the others, but more sane. After he fails to stop a friend from killing himself, he decides to abandon life in the forest, move into town, and try somehow to pick up the threads of his life. One of these threads is a wife and a son, Jack, back in Illinois. Lambert carries an old snapshot of Jack when he was a baby. The movie opens as Jack (Ralph Macchio) is graduating from high school.
The structure of "Distant Thunder" is straightforward, cutting back and forth between the father in Washington and the son in Illinois. The father is befriended by Char, a local woman (Kerrie Kean), who lost her father in Vietnam. She encourages Mark to write to his son. The son is filled with anger that his father has been absent for his entire life, but decides to drive out West to see his dad.
Meanwhile, Char's violent, jealous boyfriend attacks Mark in a saloon, and the Vietnam vet retreats once again to his hideout in the wilderness.