Tackling the topical theme of angry white men becoming violently radicalized online, Cuck is a heavy-handed but mostly engaging trawl though the foul-selling basement of Trump’s America. First-time writer-director Rob Lambert cites Martin Scorsese’s classic psycho-thriller Taxi Driver as inspiration, though his depiction of sexually frustrated “incel” rage feels more like a modestly scaled indie-drama cousin of Joker. While clearly limited in budget and a little too blunt in its hectoring message, Cuck also has an agreeably cultish intensity and newsworthy urgency. Following its European premiere last week at Oldenburg Film Festival, where leading man Zachary Ray Sherman picked up an acting prize, Lambert’s darkly funny snapshot of our politically polarized times arrives in U.S. theaters and on VOD this Friday, Oct. 4.
Ronnie (Sherman) is a resentful, sex-starved, thirtysomething loner with few friends and minimal job prospects. The son of a dead military veteran, whom he idolizes to an unrealistic degree, Ronnie still lives at home in a shabby corner of suburban Southern California with his sickly mother (Sally Kirkland), who both smothers and dominates him with weapons-grade passive-aggressive mood swings. In between his filial carer duties, Ronnie spends long, lonely hours masturbating to online porn and devouring alt-right propaganda sites.
The Internet community from where Ronnie derives his fragile sense of belonging is a toxic cesspit permanently enraged by “red pill” fake news about political correctness, gay pride, feminism, illegal immigrants, pro-abortion activism and other “libtard” causes. Women in this very macho world are typically dismissed as “feminazis” and “sluts” who secretly crave submission to dominant alpha males. Finding a welcome outlet for noisy desperation, Ronnie reinvents himself online as a right-wing video blogger, venting his wounded rage in a series of ranting sermons that soon go viral, attracting thousands of fellow “true patriot” followers. In this shadowy clickbait kingdom, at least, he can amass a degree of power and status.
The lowest breed of man in this pussy-grabbing digital purgatory are “cucks” who have been emasculated by the liberal equality agenda. For anybody unfamiliar with the term, “cuck” derives from “cuckold” and specifically from a niche porn genre in which weak men watch in humiliation as their female partners have sex with more potent males. Typically these scenarios feature white women with black or Latino lovers, which reveals way more about about the paranoid anxieties of conservative white men than Steve Bannon and his fellow cuck-baiters may like to admit.
Cuck takes a wild narrative swerve when Ronnie becomes infatuated with his vampy neighbor Candy (Monique Parent), a buxom blonde cougar who lures him into her suburban swinging lair. Initially flattered by the attention, the virginal Ronnie is soon coerced into co-starring in home-made porn with Candy and her fearsome drug-addict husband, Bill (Timothy V. Murphy), sadomasochistic fantasy vignettes that become increasingly sordid and degrading. Inevitably, when his two different online identities collide, Ronnie is cruelly shamed and rejected by the same virtual community that once hailed him as a hero. A bloody, vengeful meltdown follows.
Falling somewhere between naturalistic character study and stylized black comedy, a little clumsily at times, Cuck is peppered with implausible contrivances. For some inexplicable reason, Ronnie sets up an Internet date with a woman of obviously liberal, feminist sympathies, then immediately sunders his chances with dumb sexist outbursts. He later picks a pointless fight with a group of African American customers at the store where he works, using racially charged language to provoke them into violence, losing his job in the process. Though Ronnie is clearly depressed and unstable, such blatant acts of self-sabotage feel more dramatically convenient than psychologically plausible.
Initially a caustic and somewhat programmatic checklist of alt-right obsessions, Cuck becomes more tonally and dramatically interesting after it shifts gear midway through, when Ronnie’s story becomes a lurid psychosexual nightmare reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Having gained weight for the role, Sherman gives a generous and committed performance as an ungainly, shifty, socially awkward anti-hero. He also succeeds in wringing some sympathy for Ronnie as a painfully isolated misfit driven to extreme actions by tragic family circumstances and his own warped value system. L.A. duo Room8’s chilly electronic score lends extra emotional depth to Lambert’s timely depiction of impotent white male rage, while Tracey Ullman’s gushingly romantic 1983 single “They Don’t Know” is used to pleasingly ironic effect over the end credits.
Venue: Oldenburg Film Festival
Production company: Rimrock Pictures
Cast: Zachary Ray Sherman, Sally Kirkland, Monique Parent, Timothy V. Murphy, David Diaan, Hugo Armstrong, Travis Hammer
Director: Rob Lambert
Screenwriters/producers: Rob Lambert, Joe Varkle
Cinematographer: Nick Matthews
Editor: Mac Nelsen