February 4, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Chris Thornton and Jay Thornton
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016 in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Cactus Jack” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: An angry white supremacist lets a documentarian into his life and then inflicts terror on the filmmaker.
Culture Audience: “Cactus Jack” will appeal primarily to people who think it’s entertaining to watch a feature-length film with a flimsy plot and non-stop hate speech.
The horror film “Cactus Jack” attempts to have raw social commentary about the evils of racism by making the story’s villain an angry white supremacist. The problem is that the movie—written and directed by brothers Chris Thornton and Jay Thornton—didn’t do enough with this concept to make it worthy of a feature-length film. What should have been a short film is stretched into a movie where about 70% of it is nothing but a white supremacist character spewing hate speech non-stop.
The ranting by the movie’s title character, who’s nicknamed himself Cactus Jack (played by R. Michael Gull), becomes extremely repetitive and boring, and it shows an appalling lack of imagination. This Cactus Jack character is not to be confused with the real-life WWE wrestling star Cactus Jack. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of this approximately 80-minute “found footage” film that the plot switches to have some horror action. But then, it’s too late to save this monotonous and ultimately pointless movie.
Chris and Jay Thornton made this director statement in the “Cactus Jack” production notes: “Philosophically, ‘Cactus Jack’ is intended as an extremely relevant, thematic zeitgeist treatise and meditation on media and manipulation and on the violence we are capable of once hate hijacks the human mind. It’s an exploration of generational hate, the hubris of the spectator, and, ultimately, an explosive exposé on the institutional hate, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and propaganda endemic in the United States of America.”
That all sounds very lofty-minded, but the actual results in “Cactus Jack” are that the movie is less concerned with giving thought-provoking insights into bigotry and more concerned with constantly regurgitating the unhinged ramblings of someone who’s a bigoted idiot. “Cactus Jack” is not the noble film it pretends to be. Just like mindless slasher flicks that glorify violence with as many murders as possible, “Cactus Jack” is really just a showcase to glorify how much disgusting hate speech can be crammed into this movie.
If there’s a small percentage of people who watch “Cactus Jack” and think this movie is entertaining or enjoyable, they are most likely the type of people who are not automatically hated by white supremacists. People are more likely to give the repulsive hate speech in this movie a “pass” as entertaining if this hate speech isn’t something that a white supremacist would say about them. However, in the context of this movie, the hate speech doesn’t further the plot. It’s just a time-wasting gimmick.
The real name of the racist character in the movie is never revealed, but he calls himself Cactus Jack later in the story, when his hate-filled rants go viral and he gets some Internet fame. It’s unknown if this racist character or this movie’s filmmakers were aware that Cactus Jack is also the name of the record label owned by African American rapper Travis Scott. Oh, the irony.
The movie’s very simplistic plot is that Cactus Jack is a middle-aged white supremacist loser, who’s unemployed and lives with his widowed mother in an unnamed U.S. city. And he deliberately hasn’t left the house’s basement for the last six months. “Cactus Jack” was actually filmed in Milwaukee. Not that it makes a difference, because almost the entire movie takes place in the basement.
The movie takes place in 2016, before and after the U.S. presidential election. Cactus Jack, who believes in starting a race war, makes it clear that he’s a Donald Trump supporter. At the beginning of the movie, Cactus Jack is being interviewed by an amateur filmmaker named Chris Sandberg (played by Samson Kay), who wants to make a documentary about Cactus Jack.
Chris isn’t seen on camera very often for the first two-thirds of the movie, but he can be heard talking when he isn’t on camera. Chris found out about Cactus Jack because their mothers go to the same church. Chris’ parents are divorced and he doesn’t seem to have much contact with his father. This wannabe filmmaker is intrigued by the idea of someone who has refused to leave a house basement for months. Chris wants to know how Cactus Jack is able to live this way.
Because so much of the movie is about Cactus Jack’s non-stop ranting, Chris can barely get in any words while he’s interviewing Cactus Jack for the movie. Chris’ first meeting with Cactus Jack is Chris’ way of finding out if this demented racist is really as bad as he heard about from his mother. And to Chris’ fascination and horror, Cactus Jack is even worse than he imagined.
How does Cactus Jack make money? He says he gets money through cryptocurrency, and he hints that he’s involved in illegal activities. How does he eat? He has the basement stockpiled with enough non-perishable food, like an extreme survivalist. The basement has a kitchen, a bathroom and a bed. Cactus Jack says he’s never had to leave the basement for the past six months, but that’s questionable, since he’s not exactly an upstanding, trustworthy person.
Cactus Jack despises anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual Christian male. His putrid and repetitive monologues are basically different ways of expressing the same hateful things. And he says this is the reason why he wants to live like a hermit: “Why would I want to live out there? I’ve got everything I need right here. I’m my own man. I know how to exist and thrive without aid.”
Anyone can see that he’s shut himself off from other people because he probably can’t handle being in the real world. Because in the real world, there are people of all races, genders and religions who are better off and happier than bigots who let their lives be poisoned and consumed by hate. It’s a reality that he obviously doesn’t want to accept.
After an intense session with Cactus Jack, Chris films himself as he’s parked his car, and he’s practically giddy over all the controversial content that he’s filmed for the documentary. Chris literally pants about Cactus Jack: “He’s serious. He’s mining the real, raw shit … There’s something there that we need to learn. We need to all hear from him. There’s some disconnect there. If we can just find it, now’s the time to get in there.”
And the salivating continues, as Chris says: “This guy is pure hate. It’s like the drug of hate, and if we can figure out how he’s getting high off of it, maybe we can start pulling that shit out … It’s like a science project.” Chris will soon come to regret trusting Cactus Jack.
The misogyny of Cactus Jack is most evident in how much he despises his mother, who is never seen on camera because she remains upstairs. (She can’t stand him either.) His racist rants are occasionally interrupted when he and his mother yell at each other. Based on what Cactus Jack says, his mother (voiced by Linda Cieslik) is a retired teacher, and she has physical ailments that often leave her bedridden.
And he has a lot of resentment toward his mother because he thinks his dead father should have left the house to him, not to her. Cactus Jack tells Chris that he owns the house and lets his mother live there. But it’s obvious that Cactus Jack is lying, because if he really owned the house, he wouldn’t be living in the basement. Cactus Jack also hates his mother so much that he probably would’ve kicked her out of the house if he really owned it.
The mother doesn’t hold back on how much she detests her son. In one of their vicious verbal arguments, she calls him a “fucking loser,” a “pathetic lowlife” and a “disgusting coward.” She then screams, “I hated you since the moment you were born! I wish you were stillborn!”
Little by little, Chris finds out more about Cactus Jack’s family background. Cactus Jack’s father was a heavy drinker, whom this bitter son describes as “weak” because “he always liked to take the easy way out … My old man ran from everything.” It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed how Cactus Jack’s father died.
Eventually, Cactus Jack shows Chris a trunk filled with a secret stash that was owned by Cactus Jack’s father, who (not surprisingly) was a hardcore racist too. In the trunk are an Abraham Lincoln mask, Nazi memorabilia and weapons. And because this is a horror movie, of course what’s in the trunk will be used by Cactus Jack.
Chris films Cactus Jack calling talk radio stations to spread his racist rhetoric. Cactus Jack uses aliases when he does these on-air rants. It’s just another way that the movie drags out the hate speech without much purpose but to fill up time. During their first few meetings, Chris didn’t tell Cactus Jack his last name. But when Cactus Jack asks what Chris’ last name is, and Chris hesitantly says his last name is Sandberg, that’s when Cactus Jack starts to wonder if Chris is Jewish.
Chris is occasionally nervous around Cactus Jack, but Chris is essentially an enabler who seems more concerned about exploiting Cactus Jack’s hate for the documentary rather than stopping the hate. It’s what this entire movie does too, because it reeks of exploitation to cash in on controversy from extreme racism. Even though Cactus Jack keeps telling Chris that he’s planning to commit violent acts and Chris knows about Cactus Jack’s stockpile of weapons, Chris doesn’t seem concerned about warning law enforcement about Cactus Jack’s plans because he wants to keep filming Cactus Jack for the documentary.
It isn’t until Chris’ life is in danger that he finally sees how destructive Cactus Jack can be. Whatever Chris does after that is really just for his own self-preservation, not because he cares about fighting bigotry and preventing violent racism. It’s why this movie has no real heroes, which is probably what the filmmakers intended while trying to pretend this movie is a “thematic zeitgeist treatise.”
Cactus Jack ends up imprisoning and torturing Chris. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.) What happens next is easily predictable, because a “found footage” horror movie almost always means that someone is going to end up dead. The last third of the movie tries to rush in some horror suspense, but even that gets almost as repetitive as the racist rants that stink up the movie.
“Cactus Jack” is edited almost like a music video, with a lot of quick cuts, especially during the torture scenes. This editing technique is distracting and annoying for a movie of this subject matter. The cinematography and production design are nothing special. And the acting is mediocre, although Gull is much more convincing in his role as this angry bigot than Kay is in his role as an enabling filmmaker who gets in way over his head.
People who make exploitative and gimmicky movies about racism like “Cactus Jack” often like to say, “Oh, look at this horrible racism. We’re shining a light on how bad racism can be.” But it’s an intent that doesn’t ring true if the people who make these movies don’t practice what they preach and can’t be bothered to have a racially diverse filmmaking team.
Racism comes in different forms. It can be aggressive (like the type that Cactus Jack has) or it can be subtle, like the type of racism that filmmakers have when they make a movie about racism and then they have all sorts of weak excuses for why they don’t work with a diverse group of people. People who enjoy this movie the most have to take a good look at their own lives and see if they’re not that much different from the horrible bigot in this movie, based how diverse (or not) they choose their social circles to be in the real world, not online.
It’s a hypocrisy that needs to be examined, but hypocrites often deny they’re part of the problem, and they’re too busy pointing fingers at the obvious racists. It’s too bad that “Cactus Jack” took a lazy, obvious and ultimately ineffectual approach to the societal poison that is racism. And just like the title character, what this movie has to say just adds up to hateful garbage.
Prickly Pear Productions and Rosa Entertainment released “Cactus Jack” on Vimeo on Demand on January 22, 2021.