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Can Conservatives Make a Real Movie?

Starring Vincent Gallo and Rainey Qualley, “Shut In” is a new front in The Daily Wire’s war against liberal culture.

Courtesy of The Daily Wire
Rainey Qualley as Jessica in “Shut In,” a feature film from the conservative publication The Daily Wire

Self-consciously “conservative” movies inhabit a strange category. Those low-rent Steve Bannon and Dinesh D’Souza documentaries, or Christian blockbusters about the scourge of atheism (like the God’s Not Dead series, now in its fourth instalment), constitute their own strain of camp. They are, to borrow an academic term, paracinema: not so much a part of cinema as movie-like artifacts that exist beside it, like soft-core pornos and old state-subsidized hygiene films. Beyond their rough and ready production values and fluky humor—who can forget the intrepid D’Souza in 2016’s Hillary’s America, skulking through Democratic Party HQ, slipping into a storage room chock-full of state secrets, unguarded but for a “DO NOT ENTER” sign?—they suffer a more fundamental flaw: They are, at least for anyone not already predisposed to their message, impossible to take seriously.

The Daily Wire, the conservative media concern co-founded by filmmaker Jeremy Boreing and perennial talking head Ben Shapiro, is attempting to address the yawning quality gap between conservative movies and workaday cinema, producing and distributing what can, for lack of a better word, be deemed “real movies.” It’s a term Boreing himself used recently, introducing the new movie Shut In—the first feature film produced by The Daily Wire. “These are real movies!” he boasted in a prescreening round-table confab, protesting a tad too much. Considered alongside The Daily Wire’s regular yield of slanted reportage and commentary (recent pieces include a listicle of “America’s worst colleges for free speech” and a Shapiro-authored op-ed titled, “The Death of California”), these films are a new flank in the publication’s ongoing war against the (alleged) cultural dominance of the left. “We make what they don’t,” Boreing boasted, as the credits rolled over Shut In: “films that don’t push a secret hidden agenda.” Certainly not secret, no.

A domestic thriller, Shut In stars Rainey Qualley as Jessica, a recovering addict and single mom, trapped in the pantry of a rambling rural farmhouse. It is directed, with workmanlike competence, by D.J. Caruso, whose Hollywood credits include the 2007 psychological thriller Disturbia and 2017’s Vin Diesel vehicle XxX: The Return of Xander Cage. Shut In is most notable for marking the return to the screen, after a near decade’s hiatus, of actor, director, and musician Vincent Gallo. Gallo plays Sammy, a slimeball meth addict and child molester, who serves as Qualley’s foil. Gallo is himself something of a bête noire, who might be easily grouped among the film’s gaggle of Hollywood outcasts, were it not for the fact that he never had much use for Hollywood in the first place.

The Daily Wire new entertainment division seems to be curating a stable of such ideologically consistent fellow travelers. Shut In was co-produced by Dallas Sonnier, another self-styled iconoclast who has developed, produced, and distributed genre movies outside of the traditional Hollywood pipeline. His company, Bonfire Legend, has recently borne a batch of genuinely thrilling, superviolent exploitation flicks (2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, 2019’s Dragged Across Concrete), lobbed right to the reactionary mindset. If Gallo lends Shut In a measure of prestige (or at least curiosity), Sonnier brings The Daily Wire’s shop something more critical: the basic know-how that operations as knotty as film production and distribution demand.

Drafting someone like Sonnier to their side of the culture war makes an intuitive sense. The Daily Wire has a built-in viewership base, about 35,000 of whom tuned in for Shut In’s web-only YouTube premiere. (The film is now paywalled on The Daily Wire’s website, with details of a wider release still forthcoming.) Still, the question nags: Why would Vincent Gallo throw his lot in with the Ben Shapiros of the world?

An auspicious talent who broke through in the late 1990s with the depressive indie crime thriller Buffalo ’66 (which he wrote, directed, and starred in), Gallo earned a reputation as a talented director and thrilling screen presence. An intense, hypnotic performer, he lent his stark, lupine looks to films by Francis Ford Coppola (Tetro), Claire Denis (Nénette et Boni, Trouble Every Day), and Jerzy Skolimowski (Essential Killing). With his mannered, mesmerizing way of speaking, and his Saint Laurent model looks, Gallo seemed, for a spell, like cinema’s reigning It Boy.

Yet he struggled to suppress his enfant terrible image, happily warring with critics who regarded his movies as anything less than masterpieces. He was booed at Cannes for his 2003 existential road movie The Brown Bunny, which the late Roger Ebert drubbed as the worst film ever to premiere at the prestigious festival. Gallo responded by telling Ebert he had “the physique of a slave trader.” His last feature as director, 2010’s Promises Written In Water, remains unreleased, following select screenings at film festivals in Venice and Toronto. In the past decade, he largely slipped from public notice, popping up occasionally to praise Donald Trump, sue Facebook, offer escort services, and hawk his own semen online.

Gallo is a consummate reactionary agitator, though he would vehemently deny it. (“I am not a provocateur,” he wrote in a 2018 essay that also included the statement, “I do not believe in equality.”) He says things like, “Marijuana and socialism were the evils of the twentieth century.” On his website, he sells custom T-shirts (each priced at $666) calling Colin Kaepernick a “white boy” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “ignorant.” He rows with journalists and fellow filmmakers, once calling Harmony Korine “a mini-dwarf rich kid.” His behavior is so exaggeratedly anti-social as to seem parodic. And it’s pretty much impossible to tell if he’s putting it on.

“I’m clearly a small-minded person,” he once confessed. “Hopefully, my work transcends my own petty grievances and small-minded nature.” His films are undoubtedly the work of a sensitive artist, concerned with old-fangled ideas of grace and redemption and (most unfashionable of all) the coiled alienation of the contemporary male. They also serve as projections that walk a line between the self-aggrandizing and the appalling. Early in Buffalo ’66, Gallo’s Billy Brown assaults a man in a bathroom for commenting on the size of his penis. Late in The Brown Bunny, those dimensions are revealed in full, as Gallo’s Bud Clay (rather infamously) receives fellatio from an ex-girlfriend, played by Chloë Sevigny. Making an on-screen blow job seem believably tragic is a tough trick. Gallo pulls it off.

That kind of tension is nowhere to be found in Shut In. And no one performance can salvage a film so dull. The film opens on Qualley packing up her dead mother’s home, blasting heavy metal as she makes last-minute preparations to relocate with her three young children. One foot out the door, she’s stopped by the children’s strung-out father (Jake Horowitz) and his looming buddy, Sammy (Gallo). An argument ensues, and Jessica’s ex traps her in the pantry, where the bulk of the film unfolds.

It’s a drama of resilience, as Jessica’s maternal instincts sharpen and she struggles to free herself. The tension is further spiked by the return of Gallo’s Sammy, who tempts her with drugs and lays bare his perverted designs on her young daughter. Gallo’s  authentically raw performance also has an unintended consequence: It makes the rest of the film look even more crude and amateurish by comparison. This is a film that uses rotten apples as a metaphor for moral decay and charts its climax with the arrival of a howling storm. Likewise, for all its desperate edginess—drugs, guns, the implicit threat of a child being assaulted, the casting of Vincent Gallo, etc.—it plays like a moralizing Sunday school sermon. Qualley’s character is so obviously “Christlike” that in one scene she literally gets a nail driven through her hand.

The ending—which sees the heavy metal–loving Jessica recast as a midcentury supermom in an apron, whipping up preserves in a sun-streaked kitchen—is similarly ludicrous: a kitschy image of moral and maternal order restored. These are the sorts of images that Woke Hollywood doesn’t want you to see: a woman making apple butter! It’s all a little too neat and tidy, and much too bland to serve as a proper provocation.

If Gallo’s own movies are politically conservative, it is only in their depiction of the individual as a stand-alone atomic unit. Margaret Thatcher said that there is “no such thing” as society; there are only individual men, individual women, and families. Scratch the bit about family, and you’ve got the elevator pitch for Buffalo ’66: a film that sees the main character’s mom (a fancifully bewigged Anjelica Houston) lamenting her son’s birth because being in labor meant she missed a Buffalo Bills playoff game. His movies may be mean, but they never settle for simple nihilism. They always leave an opportunity for a sliver of grace: in the form of a gentle hand touch, the gift of a heart-shaped cookie, or a phantasmic bout of oral sex.

What makes Gallo a culturally conservative figure is his knack for playing the role of the persecuted artist, always misunderstood by a mean-spirited media mob out to torch him. And it’s arguably this Vincent Gallo—the pariah thumbing his nose in all directions, who makes a virtue of being disliked—that the Daily Wire brain trust seems keen to exploit. Gallo’s films are interested in transcending petty grievances; The Daily Wire seems more concerned with reproducing them. A promotional email blast from Ben Shapiro pumps Shut In as a movie “that does not pander to the political Left.” Instead, it panders to its own ready-made demographic. And with The Daily Wire’s film slate, it’s curating a kind of Island of Misfit Toys for conservative castaways. Its next movie stars Gina Carano, who was fired from Disney’s The Mandalorian after publicly comparing being a Republican in the United States today to being a Jew during the Holocaust.

Still, at the risk of handing it to them, the Daily Wire filmmakers are right that Hollywood movies have become mostly insipid and openly ideological in their own way. The neoliberal politics of the Marvel Studios productions—pro-diversity but also pro-military, the CIA, etc.—are well documented. All those movies are lousy, too. But The Daily Wire is prematurely patting itself on the back for changing the landscape and bankrolling conservative movies that creep out of the paracinematic tradition and broach the perimeter of cinema proper. Kudos to them on managing to make a real movie. Maybe next they’ll make a good one.