Forget about the Joker: here is a movie you should see about an extremist loner

This weekend, a film about an unstable loner pushed to the edge by an uncaring society comes to theaters. This figure, a virginal loser whose only female contact comes from tenderly sponge-bathing his elderly shut-in mother, feels like he’s been cheated by a world out of order. He exudes rage outward in every direction: to the girl next door failing to reciprocate his crush, to the absentee father leaving him without a role model, to the celebrity idol he worships until he ends up the butt of their joke. With nothing to lose and a heart full of hatred, the angry white man finally snaps, smearing on some face paint and going on a shocking rampage of gunfire. For all its extreme subject matter, this film has captured one particularly toxic dimension of the national attitude, a vitally relevant work of popular art for better and for worse.

I am referring, of course, to Rob Lambert’s new motion picture Cuck. What’s that? They made another Joker movie?!

The similarities between Lambert’s vision of alt-right virulence and Todd Phillips’ much-discussed take on the famed foe of Batman are so numerous and specific that one would almost certainly seem like a rip-off of the other if the films hadn’t been produced concurrently. They’re joined in an objective to burrow into the pathologies of an extremist, to take a close look and discover what drives a seemingly ordinary person to extraordinary violence. Many critics have deemed Phillips’ film a failure in its chosen creative mission, generally on charges of inadvertently glorifying the character it’s supposed to be critiquing. What luck, then, that this week’s cinematic offerings would also yield an illustrative counterexample to Joker’s crucial missteps. Lambert’s film makes its point by delving deeper into toxicity and committing to the most unattractive parts of itself. He’s willing to put his money where mouth is, and the result is more repellent, honest and astute than this week’s odds-on box office champion.

Our man is Ronnie (Zachary Ray Sherman), a self-described “patriot” disseminating racist invective from the computer room of his home in the California suburbs. Though he likes to wear his father’s fatigues around town, he failed the military’s psych exam and wouldn’t get far with his doughy physique even if he passed. He subsists on a daily diet of vlog rants stoking the fires of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and every other strain of bigotry one could think up. Ronnie’s taken to recording some of his own, going on awkward and inarticulate tirades laced with buzzwords native to his adopted peer group. Everyone’s either a “cuck”, a “libtard” or worse.

There’s nothing even faintly sympathetic about Ronnie. Every time it looks like the film might be showing some compassion toward his loneliness, he turns around and does something vile to remind us that his plight is almost entirely of his own creation. He’s most likely diagnosable, and yet Lambert recognizes that mental illness isn’t the real culprit here, but rather one element of a volatile combination. However Ronnie may be mixed-up in the head, his decisions and surroundings exacerbate and amplify his dark lines of thinking, creating a feedback loop in which his alienation from the world compounds itself every time he tries to make a connection. Lambert plays up the “incel” angle, first when Ronnie’s attempt to chat up a stranger spirals out into calling her a bitch, and again when he falls in with his neighbors. They make cuckold pornography, and in Ronnie, they think they’ve found the perfect guy to play the husband watching helplessly as a superior man goes to town on his “wife”.

During these scenes, in which the couple seems needlessly cruel and antagonistic enough to justify Ronnie’s eventual animosity towards them, Lambert overplays his hand. It seems for a moment like the world really is conspiring against Ronnie, when in actuality, he’s merely cast himself as a tragic hero while playing the fool. The director and co-writer Joe Varkle are sharp about the black comedy that necessarily, uncomfortably coexists with this strain of dim-witted terrorism; a meeting to restore white supremacist values in America takes place at a TGI Friday’s-style family restaurant, and ends with its leader musing that he’s been eyeing the chilli fries.

That much proves essential during the chilling finale, in which Ronnie takes up arms against the many enemies existing largely within his fevered imagination. He turns out to be a pretty bad shooter, between his piss-poor aim and lack of a tactical plan. He clumsily picks off the few people he has anything personal against, then realizes he has nothing left to do with all of his anger, so he kills himself by pulling a gun on the police cornering him. It’s a coward’s way out of facing the consequences, and a surprisingly potent corrective to the end of Joker, which finds Joaquin Phoenix’s maniacal antihero having essentially gotten away with it as he continues to outrun the authorities chasing him.

The most indelible shots of each film speak volumes about their true belief in the content of their protagonists’ souls. The definitive image of Joker finds Phoenix in full clown get-up, power-striding down the street in slow motion as he revels in all the chaos he’s created, like a deranged perversion of the classic sequence from The Right Stuff. The most memorable bit of Cuck comes when Ronnie’s at his lowest, peer-pressured into letting a performer ejaculate on his face as the camera keeps rolling. The former can’t help but admire the character it claims to interrogate and dissect, and the latter ensures that that will never be possible. Lambert’s film pulls no punches in its efforts the show who Ronnie really is – neither hero, nor martyr, nor object of pity. He’s just loud, and small.