I Watched A Ben Shapiro Movie By Accident
2:07 PM EST on March 4, 2022
“if you’re looking for something to watch, SHUT IN, is pretty fun and vincent gallo gets his ass kicked if you’re into that sort of thing.” That’s a tweet I wrote a couple of weeks ago late on a Saturday night. It no longer exists. The reason it doesn’t exist is because almost immediately after I posted it, I got a DM from a friend: “uh, you know that movie was produced by the ultra-right-wing daily wire with only ultra-right-wing producers, talent, and so forth, for that market?” Uh, what? No. No! Delete! Delete! What? “Yep. They’re trying to make ‘real’ movies now…sneak that shit in under the cover of actual production values.” For fuck’s sake, this always happens to me. I will be watching an ultra-evangelical movie and not realize it’s ultra-evangelical. I will be listening to Christian radio and not realize it’s Christian radio. If Jesus is around, I need him to announce himself. Or I’ll just think he’s from Brooklyn.
The Daily Wire should have been enough of a signpost. The conservative media company co-owned by Ben Shapiro produced Shut In. I saw the name appear, and thought: Huh, interesting, guess some media site made this. Weird. I made a mental note to look up that site (my friend’s DM got to me first). Otherwise, there was no reason for me to intuit the right-wing underpinnings of a single mom (Rainey Qualley) who used to be a drug addict being locked up by her drug-addict ex in a pantry with a crucifix and a bible and some drugs and a whole bunch of apple butter—lots of apples, they’re everywhere; no snakes though—while her two kids are menaced by a pedophile played by Vincent Gallo. When I saw the metal crucifix fall off the wall my only thought was: She can use that as a shiv! When I saw the bible was full of money left to her by her grandmother I thought: Strange! But it’s the only book in the house, so it makes sense! When she read the bible verse about apples I thought: How fitting! When everyone started talking about taxes I thought: Ignore it!
Shut In belongs to the stealth-Christian genre. Not so stealth if you ask the friend who DM’d me, and my best friend, who I think is still laughing two weeks later at how I could have missed the sheer quantity of its religious iconography. American Underdog is another one of these, a big-budget film put out by Lionsgate starring Zachary Levi that tells the real-life story of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. No mention of religion in the trailer, but it is marketed as an “inspirational story.” These movies are Christian but not CHRISTIAN, like the obvious Pure Flix right-wing propaganda stuff or the eschatological Left Behind series with Kirk Cameron crying on his knees all over the place. I didn’t fall for American Underdog, because it was about football, but I did watch Soul Surfer, an $18 million biopic starring AnnaSophia Robb—a real-life surfer attacked by a shark, yes please!—even though its title was a dead giveaway.
The weird thing about Shut In is its pedigree. This was not some studio biopic assigned to some poor career screenwriting hack. It was written by a first-timer named Melanie Toast (I know this sounds like a pseudonym, but I’ve heard weirder). And it was on The Black List. If you don’t know, The Black List is an annual survey of the most liked (by studio and production company execs so take this with a grain of salt) unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. Established in 2005, it has attained such a level of prestige that not only have about a third of its films gotten made, some of them, like Spotlight and Slumdog Millionaire, have even gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Shut In appeared on the list in 2019, and was labeled a thriller with the following pitch: “A single mother must do everything she can to protect her children and survive when she is held captive by her violent ex, and her two young children are left at risk.” Pretty innocuous?
I tried to secure this vaunted script from Toast’s rep, but he said his client “has decided to avoid all press/interviews surrounding this project.” I ended up finding it on Reddit. I don’t know why Toast is avoiding press, they filmed Shut In exactly how she conceived it. In written form, the obviousness of all the biblical imagery, which I just slightly cocked a brow at but didn’t make much of while watching, confirmed how stupid I was. In Toast’s script, the crucifix appears numerous times. The bible does too. If you are too dumb to get it even while reading, Toast’s got you: “She looks at both her hands outstretched in front of her. Both marked like Christ.” In the script, water drops on Christ’s face. Like he’s crying. I am crying. That very conservative fear of pedophiles is there too, as is the protection of hearth and home and the woman as maternal superhero. (The oddly out-of-place mention of taxes, too—twice.) So is the moralizing over good versus bad people (see: good apples versus bad apples). “I am better than you,” the main character tells her ex who is a drug addict like she was, but she kicked it and now she’s being rewarded with a whole bunch of bible money. This is all translated on screen (well, not that exact line, but pretty much everything else), and I noticed nothing.
Shut In wasn’t always in the hands of a conservative media company, but it was always in the hands of Dallas Sonnier. A Texas-based movie producer, Sonnier is the kind of guy who calls his ultra-violent ultra-reactionary movies—from Brawl in Cell Block 99 to Bone Tomahawk—“outlaw cinema” and claims to believe above all in freedom, yet always seems to land on the side of those impinging on everyone else’s. Sonnier bought Shut In after seeing it on The Black List. He considered it a perfect vehicle for combining the scrappiness of low-budget artist-forward indies with the wide reach of the studio system. He auctioned it off to New Line Cinema in 2019 and, soon after, Jason Bateman came on as director. This was the point at which, judging by Bateman’s other work, Shut In would likely have leaned away from Christianity and more towards the campy thriller lurking behind all those crucifixes. But then Sonnier’s production company, Cinestate, went dark. Adam Donaghey, a member of its core production team, was charged with sexual assault of a child, and Cinestate’s reputation dissolved in a toxic solvent of misconduct allegations.
New Line would not comment on what exactly happened with its Shut In option but at some point it reverted back to Sonnier. Having founded a new production company Bonfire Legend—a phrase defined on the company’s website as “a notoriously famous person riotously scorching disingenuous morality”—he took the film to The Daily Wire. Sonnier had already collaborated with co-founders Shapiro, Jeremy Boreing (speaking of names) and Caleb Robinson on Run Hide Fight, about a female student confronting a bunch of school shooters. Though Sonnier has described himself as a libertarian, they had a shared outlook. Boreing has explained in the past that a Daily Wire film “speaks to values that conservatives are aligned on — not strictly conservative values.” To him, Shut In is about a former addict who learns to become self-reliant, which is to say, it’s a boot-strap film for those in recovery. Which is to say, Shut In was produced for the right-wing media machine. Though Shapiro told The Federalist, “We entered the entertainment space in order to deliver a message to Hollywood: you no longer have a monopoly,” Shut In is only (officially) available to subscribers of Daily Wire, its entertainment arm amounting to little more than a new medium for self-aggrandizement. And while Sonnier may not have a clear political agenda like The Daily Wire’s, he is willing to be subsumed by this conservative media company because it underwrites a worldview in which the solution to systemic issues is a teen girl with a gun.
There was no reason for me to know about Shut In. I actively avoid conservative media. And yet Shut In found me, which, even considering how unlikely that was, seemed to underscore the creeping influence of its right-wing source. I had nothing to watch, which happens to me too much because I watch too much. When I have nothing to watch, I’ll sometimes browse Pirate Bay for ideas. The week I found Shut In was a particularly bleak one for new releases and the title struck me. It sounded thriller-y, and then I saw D.J. Caruso had directed it. Caruso made Disturbia, the Rear Window-for-teens thriller from 2007 starring Shia LaBeouf. It is I think the only movie of his I actually like, but it also proves that he is capable of making a good thriller. I was, however, unaware Caruso had recently taken a religious turn. (His next film, Redeeming Love, is a Christian western romance for Universal.) I was also unaware that the budget for a Sonnier movie would be so low (Caruso had $20 million to make Disturbia 15 years ago but, going by Run Hide Fight’s $1.5 million budget, I assume Shut In’s was significantly lower). I have watched low-budget films before, that’s not the problem. Even though Caruso was not at the top of his game, the acting was weak and the script wasn’t great, Shut In was watchable. It was thrilling enough.
That’s the problem. I felt tricked. I felt tricked into swallowing (even if only subconsciously) Shapiro’s ethos. I don’t feel tricked when I watch one of Clint Eastwood’s conservative heartland movies. I don’t feel tricked when Mel Gibson makes a movie about Jesus Christ. I didn’t even feel tricked when I watched Sonnier’s movies from before he started working with The Daily Wire. That’s because none of those movies are insidious; they are as obvious about their intentions as a brick to the head. But Shapiro and the right-wing ecosystem he belongs to seems to be an increasingly slippery one. As my friend put it, “sneak that shit in under the cover of actual production values.” It concerns me that Shapiro so seamlessly infiltrated what was supposed to be just a boring Saturday night. Not in the sense that I might accidentally become a fascist, but in the sense that I wasn’t really given the chance to actively decide whether or not I wanted to watch a movie produced by a piece of shit. And because of that, Shapiro achieved his goal. I fell for his ruse. And that is why you don’t watch pirated movies.