Ben Shapiro’s Netflix rival: shockingly competent, grievance obsessed

The last five years or so have not been cinematically kind to conservatives. So many movies were either direct or indirect rebukes of Trumpism. Red-pilled performers like James Woods, Kevin Sorbo, and Antonio Sabato Jr. pronounced themselves blacklisted from Hollywood, for no reason other than political and/or Christian beliefs—definitely not for being difficult to work with or be around. Adding insult to injury, Clint Eastwood only made five movies.

Because Hollywood isn’t serving much of what conservatives crave these days, they’ve increasingly begun making it without Hollywood. (As Ayn Rand would have done, one assumes, and as much of indie cinema has been doing since forever.) The most interesting recent examples come from popular reactionary platform The Daily Wire, which launched a production shingle at the top of 2021. As of this March, the company has released three films, none of which are quite what Daily Wire critics might expect to find on a streaming menu in between various talk shows hosted by CEO, mascot, and vaginal wetness expert Ben Shapiro.

“Our mission is simple: We will make great entertainment that all Americans can enjoy, regardless of their political views,” Daily Wire coCEO Jeremy Boreing said in an announcement last year. “If you’re fed up with the cultural edicts of our country’s self-appointed moral overlords in Hollywood and legacy media, stay tuned.”

It’s a fascinating promise. Movies with an express conservative bent often turn out like the staggeringly bad Roe v. Wade; the cloying, self-righteous God’s Not Dead; or Dinesh D’Souza’s eminently debunkable documentaries. What would a conservative movie even look like if it were intended for all Americans to enjoy? I can barely believe I’m saying this, but it would look at least somewhat like The Daily Wire’s feature film output thus far.

Run Hide Fight, the school-shooting vigilante flick that kicked off the studio’s slate last year, is shockingly competent. The acting is solid, especially from our vigilante hero (Isabel May) and the lead shooter (Eli Brown); the action sequences are engaging; and there is an attention to craft in the structure and pacing that keeps the film from dragging. I’m not sure what I expected from Run Hide Fight or other Daily Wire outings, but they’re far superior to those expectations. Credit where it’s due: These are real movies, not simply vehicles to express one’s worldview.

However, they are, indeed, also that.

Trigger warning: Ham-fisted conservative messaging

Ben Shapiro’s perma-sneer continually dips into frame like a boom mic throughout Run Hide Fight. The first thing the villain says, as bullets start to fly, is “trigger warning,” as if leading soft, pampered lambs to a real cancellation. In order to show that only more guns will protect students from shooters, the campus security guard is a burly, gunless man who instantly hurls himself to the floor and pees his pants at the first sign of violence. One of the killers is severely mentally ill while another is just a bullied nerd. (“We’re not Nazis,” the main antagonist clarifies because that’s what a liberal—and, some would say, reality—might write.) And of course, Big Tech and media—prominent punching bags for conservatives and everyone else—get their due. Still, were this movie to play on TNT some afternoon, it would probably alienate very few Daily Wire-hating Red Dawn fans.

Shut In, which premiered last month, is less of a crowd-pleaser. It’s an effectively tense bottle-episode thriller, whose tension comes from a disgusting place. The film stars Margaret Qualley’s songstress sister, Rainey Qualley, as Jessica, a young and newly sober mom, determined to raise her preschool-age daughter and baby son far away from her junky husband, Ron (Jake Horowitz) . . . as well as Ron’s child molester friend, Sammy (Vincent Gallo). Unfortunately for Jessica, Ron flips out one day and locks Jessica in the pantry before fleeing to do more drugs. Jessica must now find a way out—or at least a way to protect her daughter from Sammy-the-child-molester, who comes back to the house by himself.

If the premise isn’t enough to make viewers queasy, Shut In is also hampered by heavy-handed religious symbolism and a murky message. By the end, Jessica discovers Jesus, gets a nail through her hand, and makes good metaphorical use of a crucifix. Apparently, being woken up to the good lord’s word is the only acceptable form of wokeness for conservatives, and yes I hate this sentence, too.

The professional sheen of these movies is partly due to the efforts of producer Dallas Sonnier, who has worked on all of S. Craig Zahler’s films, including the gruesome Kurt Russell Western, Bone Tomahawk. Sonnier’s stacked Rolodex can bring talent like Thomas Jane, Radha Mitchell, and Treat Williams to a Daily Wire movie, not to mention directors like Shut In’s DJ Caruso, who previously helmed such hits as 2007’s Disturbia. Sonnier may also be responsible for some of the more ill-fitting conservative elements in these movies, though, if a recent podcast appearance is any hint. He’s certainly a reflection of them.

The Hollywood view from the right

During that podcast, Hollywood Breaks, host Keith Rauch and Sonnier discuss the many problems in Hollywood that have forced conservatives to create their own micro-funhouse mirror version. To demonstrate the film industry’s decline, Rauch reduces Spielberg’s career to one period in which the director made films about “loving America,” and the current period, in which he makes films about “hating America.” This is one of my fundamental gripes with conservative thinking; the idea that critiquing America, or dwelling on its many moral ambiguities and inconsistencies, is the same as outright hating it—unless it’s Donald Trump pointing out American atrocities to explain why Putin isn’t so bad . . . in which case, critiquing America is awesome, I guess?

The pair is onto something, though, in their Hollywood bashing. True movie stars are mostly a thing of the past, so it often takes reliable intellectual property like Marvel or James Bond to open theatrically these days. There does seem to be a Harvard-heavy, homogenous bulwark in studios that often prevents risky original material from getting made. However, it isn’t conservatism that kept Run Hide Fight and Shut In out of traditional Hollywood channels. It’s that the idea of being stuck in the closet while a known child molester has access to your daughter is a cheap and gross way to create the highest possible stakes, and school shootings are such a common real-life horror that slapping a Die Hard framework around one for tension feels tawdry. Such things may find an eager audience; many major studio heads just don’t want to be the one to lead them to it.

Especially when they think about any one element of these movies for longer than a few seconds.

Watching Run Hide Fight, for instance, I could not stop comparing the heroism of high-school vigilante Zoe and her intervening father Todd (Thomas Jane) to the real-life veneration of Kyle Rittenhouse. In the film, Zoe and Todd take matters into their own (deadly) hands because they have the circumstances, the training, and the gumption, while Rittenhouse drove hours out of his way with a semiautomatic rifle, just in case anyone at a social justice protest started looting. Whatever his intentions, or the reactions of the Kenosha protesters, his armed presence resulted in two deaths. This, legally, may not be considered murder, but it sure as hell isn’t heroism.

Still, the right treats Rittenhouse like the world of Run Hide Fight treats Zoe or Todd. The sheer number of flattering, defensive posts on The Daily Wire about Rittenhouse is staggering. The platform seems sad about what he’s been through, and applauds his suing LeBron James over a silly tweet. (There are several other posts on the site dedicated to James’ tweet, treating it like an official decree from the president, rather than something a basketball mogul probably dashed off while on the toilet.) Given the right’s definition of a real-life vigilante hero, Zoe and Todd don’t seem like true representation. If Run Hide Fight wanted a more accurate avatar of current conservative mindset, the hero would furiously demand that someone debate him while threatening to sue and complaining that too few library books have been banned recently.

The irreconcilability of the filmmakers’ politics with the fictional events they depict carries over to Shut In, too. The film’s unmistakable message is that rotten apples can be saved if you catch them before they rot all the way through, and this message is delivered as bluntly as an unexpected apple to the face. (The opening shot is literally a rotten apple lying on the forest floor.) The rot in Shut In is meant to be drug addiction, but it also could be the instinct to be a child molester. I’m not quite sure. And I don’t quite want to know.

Coming from right-wingers, though, the message that a person isn’t rotten just because they’re addicted to drugs is incredibly compassionate, and something with which the left fully agrees. Where the right differs, however, is in thinking that certain drug addicts (opioid users) should get the benefit of the doubt about being rotten to the core while others should not—and that a pivotal difference is, who is willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to get better, rather than, say, accept state assistance. Jessica gets assistance in Shut In—spoiler alert!—through family money hidden in a bible. It’s a reminder that, in the right’s view, getting help from one’s relatives is the same thing as bootstrapping—anything but getting free money from the state! As if tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy are not the same thing as getting free money from the state. As if Texas hasn’t become a hub for podcasters, filmmakers, tech people, and The Daily Wire itself in part because there is no income tax in Texas (aka free money from the state).

Another discrepancy is the motivation of the antagonist who isn’t a child molester. Jessica’s junky husband Ron is fueled by his petty certainty that Jessica thinks she’s better than he is. (We are meant to believe that, of course, she is.) But Ron’s certainty is one of the grievances I most associate with conservatives: They’re so mad about the elites who think they’re better than they are!

Consider how producer Sonnier frames himself and his cohort as victims of elitists: “We’re on the way. That’s why I think you see some of the Twitter rumblings and the attacks because Hollywood doesn’t like competition; and the critical community far on the left, who believe in this utopia that doesn’t exist, are not going to be happy with a messy, dirty, unwashed group of moviemakers making movies that don’t fit their perfect agenda.”

He is so mad about the wicked, sweeping judgment of the liberal elite that he can only describe them with apparently righteous sweeping judgment. Meanwhile, in reality, the left-leaning critical community is so deeply biased against conservatives like Sonnier that it gave all of S. Craig Zahler’s films that Sonnier produced extremely high scores on Rotten Tomatoes—higher than the audience score in every case.

Just make good movies

Could it be that Hollywood and the critical community don’t necessarily have a blanket bias against movies made by or for or about conservatives, but rather a bias against terrible movies of that ilk? Time will tell, as The Daily Wire continues developing its slate.

Beyond Run Hide Fight and Shut In, the platform just released The Hyperions, a superhero satire starring Cary Elwes; and has on deck for this summer, Terror on the Prairie, a Serge Leone-inspired Western with Gina Carano. The Daily Wire’s collaboration with Carano, who was fired from The Mandalorian for publicly linking the plight of modern Republicans to that of Jews in Nazi Germany, is perfect symbiosis. She is the self-styled embodiment of all aggrieved conservatives in entertainment—the underdog fighting an oppressive system that wants her to go to Woke Jail forever, or whatever.

If only everyone involved would stop defining themselves with oppositional defiance. They’re not brave heroes with dangerous ideas the elitists would ban if only they could. They’re just indie filmmakers with a popular platform and a built-in audience. Who cares? Most people on the left, I would venture, may disagree with or dislike aspects of The Daily Wire’s films, but have no qualms about them existing. Go ahead and make Gina Carano a bigger action star! Put James Woods in something he can sink his teeth into without opening his mouth about stolen elections!

Keep making movies like these, and I may eventually accidentally see one by choice.

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