Buckle up snowflakes because Cactus Jack is here to usher in an era of terror and exclusion. It might be funny if it wasn’t so damn scary.
I was in no way prepared for Cactus Jack by Chris and Jack Thornton. I had a misconception that this would be an edgy film that would be heavy on vitriol but light on emotional impact. Because I curse like a sailor and am a left-leaning moderate, I should be able to weather the onslaught of filth, and depravity Cactus Jack spews. I was wrong. Just like the title character for whom the film is named, Cactus Jack is so vile it will leave you feeling unsettled, upset, and filthy.
An amateur filmmaker sets out to exploit an oddball shut-in who hasn’t left his mother’s basement six months. The filmmaker is your typical YouTube wannabe. He finds Jack more a sideshow joke than an actual threat. His disdain for Jack is palpable, and Jack sees it. Like a slow-motion train wreck that only a bystander can see coming, these two are locked in an exchange that can only end one way. Each visit, the recluse becomes increasingly agitated as he spits venom at the filmmaker and the viewer. Ultimately, his mother providers the spark that turns into an inferno, and the tables are turned on the filmmaker. The film’s last half is a wasteland of hate, bravado, and dread as Cactus Jack produces his own show that goes viral.
The film, which was written and filmed well before the events of last week’s attack on the nation’s capital, made Cactus Jack even scarier. In fact, the screenplay was written, and filming began four years ago. Jack could be one of many real people hiding behind their Parler accounts, Facebook feeds, deep web streamers, or in his case, his dead parents’ basement. That realism should terrify us all.
This film touches a nerve because as horrific as the things Jack says are, they sound familiar. Anyone who has heard even a second of the Proud Boys rhetoric or listened to any number of legitimized talking heads espouse the unfairness of America today should find his performance chilling. Similar to Ed Norton’s turn in American History X, as much as you despise what he says, there is a reason he became the monster he is. That throughline between the precariousness of hope and rot weaves through the whole movie.
R. Michael Gull(Cactus Jack) is a real find. He is the everyman you wished didn’t exist. Gull plays Jack straight. He is neither camping for the camera nor preening for the viewer. Gull so becomes Jack I would undoubtedly cross the street if I ever saw him. Like the shock jock or Lunchbox Joe is USA’s The Purge, these are people who feel like they have been pushed around and pushed out. It’s a dangerous cocktail of anger, frustration, and despair.
These podcasts, Youtube channels, and pseudo-news magazines exist. That’s the scary thing. Just as a Flat Earther has an explanation for everything, these kinds of fear-mongering doomsayers have a sick sort of logic that allows you an in-depth look into the abyss. Thank God the film has just an hour and twenty minutes run time. If you waded any longer in the muck, you would be forever tainted by it.
The first half of the film is almost nothing but monochromatic montages of a chaotic mind superimposed over Jack’s voice-over of violent blathering. This less is more approach allows the words to take center stage. The lack of visual clutter makes the words sharper and more painful to hear. They are a virtual torture session of verbal torment.
Shot on an actual micro-budget of 25K; this is an example of the power of words. Utterly reliant on a cast of two, a crew of zero, and using phones alone, Cactus Jack has significance and will make you feel uncomfortable. There is almost no gore and mostly off-screen or fuzzy violence, but it is still affecting. This is a man who has become so indoctrinated by his own corruption he is evil personified. A devil that lies hidden in the shadows of anonymity, infecting everyone around him with anxiety, fear, and hate. It’s terrifying because it could be a neighbor, a coworker, or your rideshare driver.
If this is what a phone camera and two brothers with a vision and a script can produce, Hollywood should wake up. The pandemic has taught us many things. One of those is blockbusters aren’t the only kings anymore. Audiences are hungry for content. Times are changing and quality films, with something to say, are the next wave. The Thornton Brothers are the future. The film’s experience is troubling. As much as I admire it, Cactus Jack is easily one of the most disturbing found footage films I have ever seen. I would put it in the same category as Megan Is Missing. Another all too realistic movie about human monsters and vulnerable minds. It will be one that will no doubt haunt my dreams with foul-mouthed shouts of pure evil. The c word is ruined for me forever. What a waste of a good curse word.
Watch the trailer and you can catch Cactus Jack streaming here. Be warned though, your poor ears will bleed for days.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.