It’s remarkable how watching a short film online can elicit such an emotional response that it changes the course of your day. This week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Incel” from director John Merzialde not only evoked this reaction from my first viewing, and sent me into a deep dive of online research, but also lingered in my mind as I contemplated what leads individuals to commit atrocious acts of evil and ultimately, what can save them. “Incel” is a film about the darker side of the internet. The side that harbors dangerous ideologies through online subcultures and allows them to fester until one day, those hateful ideas have the potential to leak out from the forums and into the real world.
The term “incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate.” It was originally coined in the early ‘90s by a website created for people to share their experiences of sexual inactivity. Since then, “incel” has evolved into an internet subculture of men who unwillingly remain sexually inactive and often employ hateful ideas of misogyny and racism to justify their plight. Merizalde first became interested in the subject after the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California in which 22-year-old Elliot Rodger targeted a nearby college sorority, killing six people and injuring fourteen others before committing suicide. Rodger was posthumously heralded a hero among incel communities for these actions and according to Merizalde, the event was uniquely disturbing due to the ability to track “the trail of vlogs that [Rodger] left online leading up to the attack. His descent into violent, misogynistic beliefs with a plan for “retribution” was chronicled over time, which eventually culminated in a manifesto video.” The film’s main character, Sam played by Theodore Pellerin, known for Boost (2017), It’s Only the End of the World (2016) and At First Light (2018), was inspired by Rodger and Merizalde used lines from Rodger’s vlogs verbatim as a reminder of the reality of what happened and can continue happening.
The film opens with an almost-four-minute-long continuous shot. A choice that instantly creates tension and — coupled with Pellerin’s exceptional performance — draws the viewer in as his character, Sam, aggressively attempts to get a woman’s phone number. After retreating back to his dorm room, we find Sam sharing his frustrations and suicidal thoughts to an incel community. Reading the posts on the screen, we get a sense for the rhetoric used in these types of forums as other incel members encourage Sam to harm himself and others, and we fear what influence these comments will have on him.
“Incel” successfully puts the viewer in a difficult and uncomfortable scenario, forcing them to consider how anonymous online culture is able to propagate hateful ideas that can misguide someone to tragic outcomes. What is ultimately the scariest aspect of “Incel” is realizing that this type of irresponsible discourse isn’t specific to a small incel community. Instead, violent banter within online culture is found all over the internet, which gets to Merizalde’s central question that he poses with his film: how do we identify and confront the reality of online radicalization, without compromising our right to free speech? The film’s ending, like the question, is open ended and is worthy of consideration and dialogue, before it’s too late.