Cuck

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cuck
"Sherman - almost unrecognisable in the role - pulls off the difficult feat of showing us the man underneath all the bluster without ever apologising for him."

As debate surges around Joker, art, entertainment and the advisability of giving screen time to the politics of hate, another film tackling such politics much more directly is hitting US cinemas. Cuck tells the story of Ronnie (Zachary Ray Sherman), a frustrated thirtysomething living in a dead end town and caring for his ailing mother. It's a coruscatingly bleak piece of work unlikely to attract even a fraction of Joker's audience but it also contains a fine central performance and its small scale approach makes it much harder to dismiss as fantasy.

Men like Ronnie are not rare. Most of us have encountered them all too often on the internet. Being up close is hard, however, and not every viewer will feel able to stick out the first half hour, in which we're plunged into Ronnie's world with him as pretty much our only companion. It's not the language nor even the attitudes behind it that create this difficulty, hateful as they are - it's the constant, unrelenting anger. Ronnie seems constantly on the point of exploding. One fears for the people around him and, beyond that, he's simply exhausting to be with. He is also, plainly, experiencing acute distress, but his abject failure to take any responsibility for his emotional state suggests he has little hope of relief.

Three things offer Ronnie some sense of hope. One is the kindness of local shop owner Abbas (David Diaan), who agrees to give him a job despite his lack of formal experience. One is the support he receives when he starts posting aggressive rants about women and immigrants online. And one is an encounter with Candy (Monique Parent), an older woman who flirts with him in the street and whom he subsequently discovers works as a cam girl. The prospect of sex with Candy transforms his perspective on life, but it soon becomes obvious that for all his boasting what he's really looking for is an emotional connection. He's quite oblivious to the way her world works and to his own vulnerability.

The trick pulled off by director Rob Lambert is to make us so desperate for escape from the pressure of that hate that as soon as Ronnie starts to show a gentler side we cleave to it and long for things to work out for him - despite knowing how he thinks about others and what he might be capable of. Sherman - almost unrecognisable in the role - pulls off the difficult feat of showing us the man underneath all the bluster without ever apologising for him. Usually when we see men like this in cinema they're presented as deliberate, conniving or at least intentionally dangerous. By contrast, Cuck is a portrait of weakness. Ronnie's desire to be tough, to be a leader and to take control is precisely what makes it easy for others to exploit him.

This is not a subtle film but there are a lot of unsubtle people out there. Cuck takes us inside Ronnie's head without belittling or ridiculing him, acknowledging his perspective without condoning it. Its failure to correspond with reality is illustrated by the people we see around him. Candy may fit some of his preconceptions about women all too well but there's a suggestion that most women simply wouldn't go anywhere near him. His social isolation feeds his extremist beliefs. Lambert shoots a lot of scenes close up or in cramped spaces to emphasise the smallness of his world. In the darkness of Ronnie's room, the computer screen provides the only source of light.

Cuck is a hard watch but Lambert's willingness to look directly at a social phenomenon frequently trivialised or abstracted from the human does him credit. Ronnie isn't a faceless monster - he's all too easy to understand, but nobody would ever want to be him.

Reviewed on: 02 Oct 2019
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An angry, racist, sexually frustrated man finds himself in circumstances that lead him closer and closer to the edge.

Director: Rob Lambert

Writer: Rob Lambert, Joe Varkle

Starring: Zachary Ray Sherman, Sally Kirkland, Timothy V Murphy, Monique Parent, David Diaan

Year: 2019

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US

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