By Elias Savada.
The combination of hallucinogenic talk radio sketches and Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle on steroids affords actor R. Michael Gull to follow the filmmakers’ urgings: ‘Let’s just make some shit in our basement … and show hate like it really is.'”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the uber-indie Cactus Jack weeks after watching it. A very determined indie project that showcases an actor as one of the ugliest characters ever to (dis)grace a film? Maybe it’s an exceedingly cautionary tale? Or, perhaps, a work created by an ultra-right cabal that aims to recruit people with similar beliefs in the same way that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will rallied Germans to the Nazi cause in 1935, albeit on a less brutal scale?
Parental discretion is strongly advised; this movie should never be seen by a child. I suspect many grown-ups will wonder why they ended up watching it. Micro-budget filmmakers The Thornton Brothers (a.k.a. Chris and Jason a.k.a. Them Thorntons) said that this, their first feature, which they wrote, directed, photographed, and designed “is definitely a creative snapshot of our very turbulent times – this big-top sideshow of an election specifically – and how the internet and social media in particular play a role in that turbulence.” And that makes perfect sense after watching this twisted journey into their impression of hell.
Except the brothers said that in an interview on the Scriptmag website way back in September 2016, talking about their film after releasing its crowdfunding teaser. Boy, you could have fooled me. These boys from Wisconsin – actually men in their mid 40s – have been aching for a break. Their landscape is littered with unproduced screenplays and doomed projects for years, but this film finally got its world premiere on January 22nd, with an online screening courtesy of their hometown Milwaukee Twisted Dreams Film Festival.
Maybe you can call it zeitgeist timing, as the political landscape seemingly has opportunely twisted into the film’s headwind. The combination of hallucinogenic talk radio sketches and Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle on steroids affords actor R. Michael Gull to follow the filmmakers’ urgings: “Let’s just make some shit in our basement … and show hate like it really is.”
As they start with the same introductory intertitle as did Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s silent salute to the Ku Klux Klan, you know someone’s going for shock value. Can the brothers use the same defense that the controversial director used over a century ago? Griffith said his epic was a “plea for the art of the motion picture,” asking viewers to look beyond the glorification of white supremacy. History proved him wrong, but it’s been a never-ending battle to prove that Black Lives Matters.
The film’s story begins on September 9, 2016. Focused, in black-and-white, on one rug-rat of a hatemonger, Ronald (Gull), living in his mother’s basement – and having stayed there for a good six months. He’s gotten the attention of a local, would-be documentary filmmaker named Sandberg (Samson Kay a.k.a. Sam Kozé), but demands, “Do not try to fuck me,” accompanied by one helluva icy stare. The conversation, calm at first, quickly turns to Jack spewing forth derogatory remarks with abundance.
Ronald becomes evil incarnate, damaged from his dead father’s abuses and his mother’s taunts. The Thorntons intersperse his wide-eyed rantings with stock and news footage and lots of public domain and expropriated material to visually enhance Gull’s non-stop tirades. Just before the film’s mid-point, Ronald starts to pick on his interviewer, turning the tables and trying to egg on the filmmaker. Locked, loaded, and ready to explode. And he does break, egged on by the voice of his shaming mother (Linda Cieslik) upstairs. I’m thinking of Howard Wolowitz’s mother on The Big Bang Theory for all the wrong reasons here, as Cactus Jack has not a single second of comedy. So dear readers, if any of you opt to watch, be prepared for a true shit show, in living, ghoulish color, during the film’s last half-hour. Welcome to the blood and gore portion of our show! Let’s debase the filmmaker.
Do you really want to spend 80 minutes listening to this screed, even though Gull does an incredible job channeling evil. You wonder, is he really an actor, or is it something darker? Yes, he is (an actor and stand-up comic), and he excels at playing a menacing coward in wolf’s clothing. His constant stream of spoken bile will batter you to the end.
The filmmakers play the whole thing loose at first, interspersing diatribes from the Ronald with frantic pleas by Sandberg to his smart phone while sitting in his car. What do you expect on a $25,000 budget? It gets monotonous. That same whine, with invectives tossed like pennies into a wishing well.
So they up the ante, and eventually double down.
Ronald becomes the host of his own nightmarish The Cactus Jack Show, somehow using other footage not usually available at a psychopath’s beckoning. It really can’t all be claimed as a found footage feature. Late in the film they have placed a note that says “The following is the final, unreleased episode,” so they are playing a devious genre game. Too much editing (credited to Freddy Noriega), some quite sophisticated. The Thorntons brush such criticism under the rug, as their eponymous beast claims to have made money as a bitcoin trader, and thus might have developed a multitude of abilities to create his cinematically phantasmagorical shows. Then why does he need the other filmmaker to document him? As for those internal virtual shows, the targets include Flint (Michigan, because it’s close to Wisconsin), Baltimore, women, victim blaming, among others. No way the now handcuffed and fully despoiled documentarian was lending a hand to the newly christened Jack. But, heck, I’m willing to think somewhat out of the box on this. I can hear the basso voice for the trailer, “From the mind of a mixed-up misogynist and someone with no filmmaking skill comes a startling and horrific fantasy…”
Cactus Jack is filmmaking taken to torturous extremes. It’s on Vimeo’s pay wall (with a “mature” designation), if you want to find it.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).