Is all of that ‘alt-right’ crap still topical in any regard? Obviously, COVID-19 has thrown a cloak of irrelevance over virtually everything else, but it seems like the mouth-foaming controversy surrounding the contemporarily hip way to be a bigoted curmudgeon began to fade a couple of years ago. With social media enclaves engaging in trenchant discussions about ‘inceldom’, the need for a resurgence of nativism/white nationalism and how general populations would be better off if their democratically elected governments were replaced by absolute monarchies and corporate dictatorships, it felt like the legitimising of elements that even the most callous Conservatives & Republicans wouldn’t previously be caught dead associating with.
Virulent racial hatred, the concept of women as chattel, hypermasculinity and the designation of sexual minorities as freaks seemed more like an attempt to out-satirise ‘Might Is Right’s Ragnar Redbeard or the character of General Bethlehem from The Postman than it did earnest political advocacy. Still, you shouldn’t dehumanise them, they’re still fellow homo sapiens whether they’re a psychopath stirring the pot for their own benefit or an angry, confused soul trying to find solace for their emotional dysfunction. By all means, dramatise it as well. But make it interesting, for fuck’s sake. Rob Lambert’s Cuck, which only found its way over to here to the UK a couple of weeks ago despite a 2019 US release, is a flatly acted, implausibly plotted mess that deals in stereotypes and never in characters, and it doesn’t even do that in a way that’s intelligent or willfully ironic.
Ronnie Palicki (Zachary Ray Sherman) is a man who appears to be almost handcrafted using every single ‘loser’ trope you could possibly conjure in your mind. Physically unfit with a terribly unhealthy lifestyle, he is unemployed and lives with his battleaxe mother, and spends most of his days listening to far-right podcasts and watching online pornography. He aspires to join the military but is rejected on account of mental instability and a history of petty crime, and his obsessive veneration of his deceased Gulf War veteran father has led to him wearing the latter’s fatigues about town, an act that gets him accused of stolen valour by disgusted locals. It’s tempting to feel desperately sorry for Ronnie, as I don’t have a heart of ice, but when you delve a little deeper it becomes remarkably difficult. An unabashed ultranationalist, Ronnie directs the most disturbingly ugly invective towards anyone who is not a white, American, heterosexual traditional male. He blames his lot in life on everyone except himself, and his attempts to interact with others can be summarised as inappropriate, creepy and abusive.
As his endeavours to find a romantic partner, secure a job and attain general contentment predictably go awry to a spectacular degree, Ronnie’s rage and insecurities become too great to suppress, and he takes to uploading videos of himself ranting on a highly original looking file-sharing platform called ‘VlogTubes’ (in the embarrassingly weird scene where he meets a young woman for a date, the singles site through which they initiate contact is named ‘Fish A Plenty’). Using the handle ‘TruePatriot89’, Ronnie leaves no stone unturned in targets, blaming all of America’s social and cultural problems on immigration, white complacency, a lack of traditional mores and women not knowing their place. The views on his videos skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands, and he becomes a celebrity among the online far-right community, even attracting the attention of a prominent Alex Jones/Mike Cernovic-style demagogue named Chance Dalmain (Travis Hammer).
His newfound following increasing his paranoid rage and thirst for revolution, Ronnie purchases a revolver from a pawnbroker (cue lots of painfully obvious Travis Bickle-esque moments alone in his room practising his aim) and the content of his diatribes elevates in intensity and viciousness. In a weird subplot that seems uncharacteristic of our protagonist, his sexual frustration leads him to seek out an older couple who film pornography in their home, and they offer to pay him for his participation. Seems somewhat at odds with his ‘traditional values’ ranting, but if it’s somehow meant to highlight a hypocritical dimension of his personality, it feels shoehorned in, and it eventually overtakes the principal narrative in the messiest of manners. With his smutty sideline work threatening to derail his status as the new kid on the fascist block, Ronnie’s psyche begins to lose any vestige of normalcy it once had, which can spell nothing but destruction and doom for himself and anyone unlucky enough to get in his way.
This is a lousy excuse for a film. The performances are either melodramatic or utterly lifeless and the dialogue has an air of horribly inane obviousness to it. Ronnie’s rants to the camera consist of nothing more than the inarticulate, repetitive ramblings of a poorly educated teenage bigot, let alone a man in his thirties, and it completely obliterates any potential verisimilitude in the enormous viewership he accrues. Whilst I have no affinity whatsoever for Ronnie’s real-world counterparts, even a highly nefarious and distasteful individual such as Millennial Woes possesses above-average verbal intelligence and a decent camera. The subplot involving the older openly married couple and their online porn business reaches territories of arbitrary ridiculousness, the husband filming scripted scenarios where Ronnie plays a cuckolded husband who strips nude and masturbates while watching his ‘wife’ get ploughed by all manner of taller, more muscular and more handsome men, usually men of colour (the film’s title refers both to the practice of cuckoldry, in which a married woman openly sleeps with other men, and its epithetical connotation of ‘cuck’, denoting a cowardly, unmasculine male). These scenes hit lows of the sleaziest, most perverse kind of gratuitousness, and lines begin to become blurred as to whether the film is merely illustrating the delusions that drive Ronnie’s maladaptive behaviour or if it’s actually condoning them.
That being said, I found all of the aforementioned issues with this picture to be completely and utterly hilarious. You can only make something so excessive before it starts to become amusing, and Lambert has made one of the best black comedies I’ve seen in recent years, he just didn’t intend to do so. Ronnie’s interactions with his mother (Sally Kirkland) yo-yo between tender exchanges in which she seems like a vulnerable elderly woman who wouldn’t say boo to a goose and moments of her shouting and screaming the nuttiest expletives at Ronnie and his associates, not to mention repeatedly calling the police on him. Ronnie’s private fits of rage are not terrifying bouts of repressed anger so much as bizarre gurning and convulsions that suggest severe cognitive upset or strong drug dependency as opposed to unresolved emotional problems. Sherman simply doesn’t have the danger chops to pull this off, and so Ronnie spends the whole picture as an annoying, emotionally stunted toddler rather than a quasi-stable caterpillar transforming into a psychotic butterfly. It’s at its cringiest in scenes where he attempts to be authoritative.
The pornography sequences have the spirit of a Tracy Letts style lampooning of incel psychology that invokes the aberrant irreverence of Killer Joe, rather than a genuinely disturbing and cerebral approach to a character’s mental-emotional downfall. I also, for the life of me, cannot decipher how The Guardian’s Charles Bramesco derided last year’s Joker as a vacuous disappointment while offering this film up as the more astute variation on lone wolf extremism. Joker may not have been perfect but it’s unequivocally a richer and more rewarding cinematic experience, featuring uniformly great performances and never wallowing in the amateurish, nuance-averse trappings that we find in Cuck. The former film was also not schizophrenic in its narrative, as Cuck becomes overwrought with Ronnie’s burgeoning romantic feelings for old-exploity-porno-wife in a way that feels completely inorganic.
So if you think that watching a bizarre loner flail about, rant and rave about ‘Muslims, bitches and queers’ before getting on his knees to take a load of cum in his face from a statuesque black stranger is on a par with the works of Paul Schrader, you’ll perhaps find your thoughts provoked by this one. If like me, you certainly don’t, I’ll still advise you to add it to the watchlist, as it is thoroughly entertaining in its poorly executed, sledgehammer-subtle take on sociopolitical issues and their ramifications on the average Joe. Like Tommy Wiseau, Rob Lambert needs to be commended for creating one of the best worst pieces of shit to come along in a long time.