While Todd Phillips vacuous DC origins tale fails to go beneath its grimy surface, low-budget drama Cuck offers a braver alternative
This weekend, a film about an unstable loner pushed to the edge by an uncaring society comes to theaters. This figure, a virginal loser whose only female contact comes from tenderly sponge-bathing his elderly shut-in mother, feels like hes been cheated by a world out of order. He exudes rage outward in every direction: to the girl next door failing to reciprocate his crush, to the absentee father leaving him without a role model, to the celebrity idol he worships until he ends up the butt of their joke. With nothing to lose and a heart full of hatred, the angry white man finally snaps, smearing on some face paint and going on a shocking rampage of gunfire. For all its extreme subject matter, this film has captured one particularly toxic dimension of the national attitude, a vitally relevant work of popular art for better and for worse.
I am referring, of course, to Rob Lamberts new motion picture Cuck. Whats that? They made another Joker movie?!
The similarities between Lamberts vision of alt-right virulence and Todd Phillips much-discussed take on the famed foe of Batman are so numerous and specific that one would almost certainly seem like a rip-off of the other if the films hadnt been produced concurrently. Theyre joined in an objective to burrow into the pathologies of an extremist, to take a close look and discover what drives a seemingly ordinary person to extraordinary violence. Many critics have deemed Phillips film a failure in its chosen creative mission, generally on charges of inadvertently glorifying the character its supposed to be critiquing. What luck, then, that this weeks cinematic offerings would also yield an illustrative counterexample to Jokers crucial missteps. Lamberts film makes its point by delving deeper into toxicity and committing to the most unattractive parts of itself. Hes willing to put his money where mouth is, and the result is more repellent, honest and astute than this weeks odds-on box office champion.
Our man is Ronnie (Zachary Ray Sherman), a self-described patriot disseminating racist invective from the computer room of his home in the California suburbs. Though he likes to wear his fathers fatigues around town, he failed the militarys psych exam and wouldnt get far with his doughy physique even if he passed. He subsists on a daily diet of vlog rants stoking the fires of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and every other strain of bigotry one could think up. Ronnies taken to recording some of his own, going on awkward and inarticulate tirades laced with buzzwords native to his adopted peer group. Everyones either a cuck, a libtard or worse.
Theres nothing even faintly sympathetic about Ronnie. Every time it looks like the film might be showing some compassion toward his loneliness, he turns around and does something vile to remind us that his plight is almost entirely of his own creation. Hes most likely diagnosable, and yet Lambert recognizes that mental illness isnt the real culprit here, but rather one element of a volatile combination. However Ronnie may be mixed-up in the head, his decisions and surroundings exacerbate and amplify his dark lines of thinking, creating a feedback loop in which his alienation from the world compounds itself every time he tries to make a connection. Lambert plays up the incel angle, first when Ronnies attempt to chat up a stranger spirals out into calling her a bitch, and again when he falls in with his neighbors. They make cuckold pornography, and in Ronnie, they think theyve found the perfect guy to play the husband watching helplessly as a superior man goes to town on his wife.
During these scenes, in which the couple seems needlessly cruel and antagonistic enough to justify Ronnies eventual animosity towards them, Lambert overplays his hand. It seems for a moment like the world really is conspiring against Ronnie, when in actuality, hes merely cast himself as a tragic hero while playing the fool. The director and co-writer Joe Varkle are sharp about the black comedy that necessarily, uncomfortably coexists with this strain of dim-witted terrorism; a meeting to restore white supremacist values in America takes place at a TGI Fridays-style family restaurant, and ends with its leader musing that hes been eyeing the chilli fries.