An amateur documentarian gets more than he bargained for when he sets out to make a film about a hateful, basement-dwelling recluse.
I generally make a point of not reading up on films before sitting down to watch them. Wherever possible, I try to let a piece of media speak for itself, only digging into how it was made and what the filmmakers say about it after the end credits have rolled, theorising that this information shouldn’t be a necessary precursor to enjoyment.
With Cactus Jack, that was a mistake.
For a start, I had the volume far too high—so when the racial slurs started flying, my neighbours probably got an earful. My roommate in the next room certainly did. But even after I’d rushed to turn the volume down, I still had to listen to what amounted to just under 80 minutes of the vilest hate speech I’ve been subjected to in quite some time.
Directors Chris and Jay Thornton, who also wrote the film, undoubtedly do an accurate job of recreating the kind of racist, islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic vitriol that has swept the United States in recent years, emboldened by the former president and allowed to fester thanks to the internet. R. Michael Gull, who plays the titular Cactus Jack (aka Ronald), also does a fine job of portraying the type of person who spews this sewage, giving a performance that feels acutely dangerous from the first moments he’s on screen. The problem is not whether the film is realistic, because we’ve spent the last few years seeing that, unfortunately, it is. The problem is why it bothers.
The first thirty minutes of Cactus Jack are dedicated almost entirely to Ronald’s deranged ranting, interspersed with the occasional shot of documentarian Chris (Sam Kozé) noting his shock and disgust. The thirty minutes that follow are much of the same, though Ronald has now proven he’s capable of extreme violence, donned a costume, and begun sharing his views with the world. That’s a long time to have to sit and listen to the kind of rhetoric that has led me to be spat at and called a dyke on the subway; that has made people I care about fear for their lives. My chest was tight. Several times, I thought about walking away.
You could argue that this is proof that the film is successful, because it achieved what it set out to do: make the viewer uncomfortable. But the amount of airtime it gives to these views is troubling. I am by no means suggesting that the filmmakers share these beliefs—in fact, they make a point of flashing a disclaimer at the very beginning highlighting the fact that they do not. But much as American History X was embraced by the alt-right for seemingly giving credence to their views, the lack of any real counterargument or comeuppance in the Thorntons’ film makes its purpose feel vague. There are a few fleeting moments of humour at Ronald’s expense (like the man rationalising why it’s cool that he lives in his mom’s basement), but barely enough to even register. It won’t change minds. It doesn’t offer catharsis. It’s discomfort for the sake of discomfort, and unless you’ve never been the target of such hateful language, I can’t imagine finding it even remotely entertaining.
Cactus Jack is a relatively well-shot and well-edited film, but it’s a punishing watch from start to finish. There might come a time far in the future when it’s actually scary, perhaps when we reach a better place and can look back with renewed horror. Right now though, in this weary moment, it feels like more of the same. And that, more than anything else, is just a little sad.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)