Whatever else it may be, Chuck & Buck resonates as a poison-pen self-portrait of a common but rarely acknowledged modern subspecies: the shut-in, obsessive, sexually impacted, developmentally arrested man-child, stumbling into the social current with the misshapen aura of a grub that never made it to daylight, and groove-stuck somewhere in the fusty crawlspaces of preadolescence. We’ve all met them, whether we knew it or not, and it’s easy to be disquieted by the lost and painful life-roads their misalignment represents. If Chuck & Buck is a horror story, it’s not exploiting the fear of being stalked, but of being so twisted around an absent core you become the ultimate stranger in your own strange land.
At one extreme, real and cinematic serial killers often seem hatched from this nest; it was Ed Gein (the basis for moviedom’s first authentic incluse in Psycho) who awakened America to the reality that psychotic killers weren’t merely evil and duplicitous thugs à la Night Must Fall, but more often than not the products of an ignorant, metastatic family madness, sealed off and stagnant. Conversely, Targets (1968) and Badlands (1973), though both inspired by real figures, emphasized the placid, ironic everydayness of their characters, leaving worlds of unseen pathology for us to conjure on our own.
Otherwise, the socially crippled oddball has been a character profile moviemakers only occasionally dare to explore without resorting to the serial-homicide scenario, touching down with Julie Harris’s sickroom-bruised neurotic in The Haunting (1963) and Terence Stamp’s nervous compulsive in 1965’s The Collector. Stamp’s man-child in The Mind of Mr. Soames five years later is a prime example of a branching subtheme: the clinical Kaspar Hauser misfit retarded by a life of confinement, itself culminating after a fashion in Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998).
The frisson of Makhmalbaf’s film stemmed from its semireality; her narrative was fabricated, but her two protagonists were genuine cave-dwellers suddenly thrust into an Oz-like reality. Likewise, the Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975) showed us all too clearly what could happen even to wealthy families if they don’t get out enough, and the qualmish pictures that movie puts in your head about the Bouvier-Beale women’s decades of mildewy life in that house can steal your sleep. A similar, all-too-real nightmare vision of a family still reeling from unmentioned horrors flows out of Crumb (1994); Charles Crumb was every inch the uneasy man-child martyr in soiled bedclothes.
As far as efforts to get “inside” go, few movies evoke a malformed consciousness as clearly as Eraserhead (1977), which could be seen as the persona’s anthem film, and which could have been a sonogram of Charles Crumb’s nighttime alpha waves. The terrain isn’t easy or pleasant, and so of course the travails of the terminally stunted usually make for nauseous comedy in Hollywood. Still, it’s hardly by chance that the two late-century, mainstream masterstrokes that explore the dynamic, The King of Comedy (1983) and The Cable Guy (1996), capitalize on the influence of show business and media as it rots the helpless. Gein never had to wrestle with what TV talk shows and action movies told him he should be, but today bedroom hermits have 130 channels of cheap ideas, transparent untruths, and viral glamour to fertilize their aloneness. Today, to be Mike White’s Buck is to know the world through its hard-sell depiction of itself, and to be more lost than ever.