Cactus Jack is the sort of extreme, in-your-face portrait of domestic white nationalist terror that begins with a disclaimer from its directors, Chris and Jay Thornton: “We in no way, shape, or form endorse, encourage or share the vitriolic message of this film’s subject.” Of course, that prefacing renunciation speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their ability to convey condemnation through their storytelling. And as this introduction suggests, their ensuing saga is a sensationalistic and one-note character study of a MAGA monster that’s designed to elicit outraged attention, but has no idea what to actually do with that spotlight.
Having just endured the stunning sight of pro-Trump neo-Nazi militants storming the U.S. Capitol on the orders of their “movement’s” leader, it’s hard to imagine any American wanting to endure Cactus Jack’s barrage of profane intolerance. Wallowing in the rantings and ravings of a racist and sexist skinhead who goes by Cactus Jack (R. Michael Gull), the Thornton Brothers’ film is monotonously disgusting to the point of exhaustion. Far more exasperating than its repetitive dreariness, however, is its failure to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the most rancid members of Trump’s fan base. Affording a dull up-close-and-personal view of 21st century American hate, it’s often accurate but almost never insightful.
Cactus Jack (premiering Jan. 22 on VOD) purports to be a black-and-white documentary shot by Chris (Sam Kozé) who, through a family connection, arrives at the home of Jack, who lives in the dingy basement of his mom’s house. An early, extended tracking shot through this space—set to a recording of one of Jack’s numerous calls into radio shows—has a serpentine grace, imparting details about its protagonist’s life and headspace via images of tangled wires, banks of old TV sets, machine guns, crowded shelves (full of mother’s dolls and knickknacks), and a “Don’t Tread On Me” blanket and swastika-emblazoned bass guitar. The external reflects the internal, although no such visual clues are really necessary, since Jack never shuts up about the Blacks, Jews, women, gays, and liberals that he loathes.
I’m not going to reprint the various expletives that are Jack’s favorite words, but Cactus Jack is awash in the worst of hate speech, all in order to accurately represent the mindset of its protagonist. The Thornton Brothers’ script is basically a series of protracted monologues performed by Jack, who on the eve of the 2016 presidential election rails against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Muslims, African-Americans, homosexuals, and “weak-willed pussies and parasites”—to name only a few of his myriad targets—in one long-winded speech after another. These tirades are faithful to the various grievances, prejudices, and conspiracy theories of such repugnant individuals, and they also express the way in which ignorant cretins try to validate their intolerance through grandiloquent (and oft-apocryphal) phrases and terms, as when Jack refers to African-Americans’ “prognathic jaws” and explains the supposed historical roots of the term “faggot.”
While Cactus Jack’s profile of white nationalists is truthful, though, it’s not revealing. Jack appears to have inherited his ugliness from his dead-by-suicide father (who, in a telling shot, is revealed to have kept his Third Reich paraphernalia hidden beneath an Abraham Lincoln mask and American flag). He also dreams of murdering his mother, who screams invectives at him—about being a jobless loser with no chances of ever finding a woman—from the floor above. But otherwise, we know nothing about why he’s an antisocial lunatic who hasn’t left his subterranean dwelling for six months, whether he spends time self-radicalizing himself online, or how he financially supports his day-to-day existence eating canned beans, playing with his weapons, and spouting off to Chris, who’s barely a character at all.
Jack’s incessant oration is embellished by insert shots (and montages) of archival film clips and images of Hitler, racist Black stereotypes, and happy 1950s homemakers. It’s not clear if these are meant to be the handiwork of fictional documentarian Chris or the Thornton Brothers themselves, but it doesn’t matter, because either way, they’re blunt, tedious, and gratuitous. Worse, after fifteen minutes of enduring this psychopath’s dialed-to-11 bile, it becomes clear that there’s no real story to Cactus Jack. Eventually, the “narrative” takes a twist so that we can get some scenes of outright torture—heads shaved, swastikas tattooed on foreheads, waterboarding, etc.—but it’s all just more of the same, which also goes for Jack’s eventual decision to produce his own web series (“The Cactus Jack Show”) in which he spews redundant nastiness while wearing his dad’s Honest Abe mask and a Nazi hat in front of a desecrated Stars and Stripes.
All of this might be disturbing if we hadn’t lived through the past four years—and the last two weeks. Unfortunately for Cactus Jack, though, we have, and its nominal timeliness is undermined by its inability to afford any deeper analysis of those repugnant citizens who call themselves “patriots” even as they proudly embody anti-American values and preach the overthrow of the democratically-elected government. As the title character, Gull certainly has the feverish eyes, spittle-inflected verbosity, and high-strung physicality of righteous Final Solution true-believers, turning Cactus Jack into the type of madman who would have gladly joined the insurrectionist terrorists on their march into the Capitol on Jan. 6. But that doesn’t mean his ideology or motivations are particularly hard to grasp, and the Thornton Brothers’ film quickly exposes itself as a venture more interested in shock tactics than in-depth examination.
Cactus Jack believes it’s presenting audiences with a raw, unvarnished view of the white-nationalist underbelly of contemporary society. Yet without any concurrent investigation of such ethos’ warped origins, hypocrisy, or illogicality, it functions as a feature-length platform for the very homicidal evil it purportedly wants to censure. No matter its climactic gesture of condemnation, it’s a film that gives such prolonged voice to repugnant fanaticism that its legacy—if it has one at all—seems most likely to be as a work that gets strip-mined for GIFs, memes, and video clips by the worst of the worst on Reddit and 8kun.