Home / Entertainment / Is the R-rated, faith-friendly movie ‘Shut-In’ an alternative to Hollywood?
Actress and singer Rainey Qualley as Jessica.

Is the R-rated, faith-friendly movie ‘Shut-In’ an alternative to Hollywood?

In a push to create an alternative to Hollywood, the conservative news outlet The Daily Wire premiered “Shut-In” on YouTube Feb. 10.

“Shut In” is a solid home invasion horror film that seamlessly integrates faith with its claustrophobic thrills — and “solid” is exactly the bar it needed to clear to be a potential game-changer for entertainment produced by religious conservatives for religious conservatives.

Conservatives — religious and otherwise — have long railed against a perceived anti-conservative and anti-religious bias in mainstream entertainment.

“This film is going to be the first step in producing content that you are going to love,” said Ben Shapiro, editor emeritus of The Daily Wire and host of “The Ben Shapiro Show.” “It reflects your values rather than the values of Hollywood. Stories express values, and values shape culture. Hollywood has known this forever and wielded the power of story like a weapon. But now we are offering an alternative.”

You could say the context of the film is more important than the film itself.

“Shut In” is produced in collaboration with Dallas Sonnier’s Bonfire Legend production company. This is part of The Daily Wire’s overall push to diversify its platform from the political commentary that has made it a $100 million company. It has already bought and distributed the Bonfire Legend-produced “Run Hide Fight” and produced a handful of comedy specials by Adam Carolla under the umbrella of “Truth Yeller,” but this is its first “Daily Wire Original” feature film.

Jeremy Boering, CEO of the Wire has insisted that he and his team are not interested in making explicitly religious or political movies but rather movies that resonate with the values of their audience in ways that mainstream Hollywood is increasingly reluctant to make. “We’re not making ‘Christmas Romance in the Rockies’ or ‘Hillary’s Hard Drive Part III,’” he told Axios.

Sonnier agrees. He is the producer of “Shut In,” as well as “Run Hide Fight,” “Bone Tomahawk” (starring Kurt Russel and Patrick Wilson), “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (starring Vince Vaughn) and “Dragged Across Concrete” (starring Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson). In an exclusive interview with ReligionUnplugged.com, Sonnier described how hard it was to bring a movie like “Shut In” to the big screen in today’s Hollywood:

So at one point, everything – all of the religious iconography — got removed. All of the stuff about Nana’s apple butter. All the garden of Eden references. All the really icky, dangerous stuff in the movie, like kids (in) danger or a a sexual predator in the house, got removed. … At one point there was even an evil dog put in the script. And it’s just so typical Hollywood, because they’re trying to appeal to everyone and offend no one. Sure. And that is such a neutered way of making movies. And it’s not my aesthetic — it’s not my brand, anyway.

Sonnier’s brand has always been hard R-rated material with deeper messages and themes. He is not afraid of making people uncomfortable. His films tend to celebrate traditional gender roles (“Bone Tomahawk”) and have uncomfortable conversations around abortion (“Brawl in Cell Block 99”), race, and corrupt cops (“Dragged Across Concrete”) or school shootings (“Run Hide Fight”). But nothing he’s made before has been, strictly speaking, political. So it’s a bit perplexing that he would choose to create a long-term partnership with an explicitly political platform to make his movies. But behind the scenes, Sonnier assured me that it was getting harder for him to make the kind of movies he was interested in. Here’s more of what Sonnier told me:

It became harder and harder after the woke culture rise in 2014. And it just got worse and worse. And I saw the writing on the wall. When I made a tough movie, it was hard for the distributors each time because they were just sick of getting yelled at … by the critics, by the press, by their own lefty colleagues — like all this kind of stuff. And so I needed a home. I needed a home that was going to support the kind of pressure-cooker movies that I like to make. I had conversations with all the other players in this space, and there wasn’t a fit either. They didn’t want to create a business out of it. They wanted to do maybe one movie at a time. Or they wanted to make very safe films. I want to make ‘Run Hide Fight,’ ‘Shut In,’ ‘Terror on the Prairie.’ … That was the fit, and they (The Daily Wire) also had the financial backing to do so. And the right mindset. So it’s a perfect fit.

Sonnier’s family trauma positions him to portray both violence and faith

“Shut In” follows Jessica, a single mother and ex-drug addict who gets locked in her pantry by her junkie ex-husband and his child-molester friend. She has to find a way to escape so she can save herself and rescue her children from the attackers. Starring actors include Rainey Qualley (“Love In The Time Of Corona”), Jake Horowitz (“The Vast of Night”) and Vincent Gallo (“Buffalo ’66”) — in his first feature role since 2013.

The movie is a solid home-invasion genre thriller that does a good job of scratching the itch for claustrophobic, nail-biting tension and action. It is by no means groundbreaking, with many similar offerings available on Netflix or Amazon. But this one does a better job than most at keeping the pace of tension rising throughout and the various twists mostly grounded and believable. The heroine’s emotional beats and strategies for escape — successful and unsuccessful — feel earned for the most part. Most of all, the film doesn’t run out of steam or fall apart in the third act like other movies — Mike Flanagin’s similarly-premised home-invasion thriller “Hush,” for example.

Watch the trailer:

For people of faith, one of the most impressive things about the film will be its (nearly) seamless integration of both faith-based imagery and themes into a very harsh R-rated movie. In many ways, you would think faith and R-rated fare would go hand-in-hand, since most people tend to have their deepest experiences of faith at their darkest moments. Yet, faith-based audiences have typically shied away from violence — partly because they so highly value comfort and safety in their movies. As I noted in my review of “Redeeming Love,” many faith-based films are about showing how God makes the world less scary but also showing as little of the scary world as possible. Therefore, faith-based films have long stayed firmly in the family-friendly market, which has punished movies that tried to be more gritty.

“Shut In” does a solid job of integrating religious imagery and themes without falling into the common faith-based film traps of being preachy or forced. The pantry Jessica is trapped in has a Bible and a crucifix in it. So as she struggles with her situation, both these items become touchstones for her emotional state that she either wrestles with or receives much-needed emotional closure and flashes of inspiration from. Because her ex leaves drugs in the cabinet with her, she has physical manifestations of her good and bad natures — and the way of God and the temptation to sin — in the room with her to represent her struggle. The fact that D.J. Caruso did such a solid job directing the film is ironic, considering he was also the director of the hilariously bad faith-based romance film “Redeeming Love.”

Does “Shut In” provide the blueprint that Christians who want to talk about their faith in traditional R-rated thriller movies have been looking for? Partially. It provides one model. Thriller movies are almost always about using terror to express a deeper character struggle for the protagonist — think family drama in “The Haunting of Hill House” or the trauma hook-up culture in “It Follows.” “Shut In” shows Christian screenwriters that you can make faith elements be the symbols of the protagonist’s emotional conflicts and shows how to tie them into the story beats. That’s a lot better than the offerings we’ve gotten previously, so that’s progress.

Despite this, many people will find the violence difficult to overlook. Sonnier, a person of faith himself, has always made violence a big part of his movies, for good reason: Both his parents were murdered in unrelated, ultra-violent incidents. His stepfather murdered his mother, and then the ex of the stepfather’s new girlfriend hired someone to kill him. Sonnier shared details about that with me too:

It obviously affects your life. … So two reactions to that: One is, obviously it takes a lot for me to feel an emotion. When you go through that level of trauma, your nerves get frayed. So if I’m making a movie … and I feel it — yeah. That means the audience is gonna feel it 10 times what I feel because it takes so much for me to feel. The second thing is, when you present violence in a clinical way, which I do, (it’s) representative of the feeling when you are looking at your own loved one in the morgue. Or it is cleaning up your loved one’s house the next day, after the cops leave.

Sonnier believes that his specific way of portraying violence — which is unromantic and reflects the traumatic way it affects the loved ones of those hurt — is one he’s uniquely gifted to contribute to the world and adds something to it. “It’s deeply personal, but it’s also something that’s important to me to share with the world because it’s really hard to do,” he said. “And I feel a personal responsibility for it.”

Despite this, Sonnier believes faith-based audiences will find things they resonate with. “I predict that folks who are deeply religious or faith-based are going to respond to those elements in the movie, the way that I did,” he said.

He may be right, too. Violence is often the one family-unfriendly thing that faith-based audiences will forgive in films — unlike sex and foul language — provided it is furthering values they believe in. “The Passion of The Christ” and “Hacksaw Ridge” were extremely violent and did well with the faith-based crowd. “Unplanned” showed a detailed abortion on an ultrasound, but it was okay because it was an anti-abortion film. The fact that this violent film is part of a push to create a conservative Hollywood may open up faith-based audiences to tolerate more kinds of entertainment in ways that might prove positive. It’s also worth noting that most of the movies that have flirted with edgier content and failed have either been artistically weak  (“Thy Neighbor,” “Generational Sins,” “Redeeming Love”) or largely deconstructions of faith rather than celebrations of it (“Silence,” “First Reformed”).

The pitfalls and strengths of conservative creativity in “Shut In”

The Daily Wire’s pitch for its films centers on celebrating conservative values without being overtly political, and you can see some of that come into play here. One thing the conservative pundit sphere has often complained about in Hollywood is how women with no superpowers easily beat men in physical contests, which is both laughably unrealistic and has contributed to an erasure of biological male-female differences from the cultural imagination. “Shut In” leans into these sex differences by making Jessica’s weakness compared to her male attackers a huge part of the story’s fear factor. Jessica relies on traditional feminine strengths like empathy, caretaking, and verbal prowess to save herself — while getting protection from one toxic man against a worse toxic man — was an example of how a conservative imagination can be a creative strength in a story when done right. It also reminded me how dangerous the world really is for women compared to men and therefore the responsibility I have to take their concerns seriously.

“Shut In” isn’t perfect, of course. It sometimes falls into some of the same annoying tropes of both horror-thrillers and faith-based films. Some of the choices the characters make fall into the “stupid characters in horror films” cliches, with both the protagonists and antagonists making decisions that stretch believability in order to move the plot forward. Most of these aren’t as bad as I find in a lot of horror films I watch, but they are there.

Some creative choices of the film also weaken the story’s themes and emotional punch. The mother needed to be a lot meaner to her daughter at the start of the film in order for her apology and insecurities for being a bad mom to carry any weight. When we are told the central character’s main arc is how she feels like she’s a bad person and a bad mom, but we never see evidence that this is a plausible fear, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they toned down the character’s flaws so the sensitive conservative audience wouldn’t hate her. Likewise, certain emotional payoff moments — like when the protagonist sees how much her own mother really loved her by what was left in the Bible for her, saying “I’m not nothing” to her ex — and the ending message, contrasting bruised apples with rotten apples to give us the difference between flawed and bad people, feel hollow because these were not set up as dramatic questions within the story. The movie never tells us that she doubted her mother loved her, that she felt like she was nothing or that she was confused about the difference between a flawed person and a bad person. So these payoff moments don’t have the kick you’d want them to have and that they should have had.

That said, all The Daily Wire needed to do to stake its claim as the forefront of a new conservative Hollywood was make a good film — not a great one. And in that, it overwhelmingly succeeded.

Religious people are going to be divided on whether that’s a good thing or not. For many, the exact problem with modern American religion — in particular, evangelicalism, but also strains of Judaism — is the that religious people often align their faith closely with their conservative politics. David Brooks wrote a widely-circulated piece in the New York Times with this message, entitled, “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself” — the “itself” being an embrace of right-wing politics.

Personally, I don’t see it that way in this instance. I think both religious conservative and religious liberal imaginations of the world are valid and important for film because they are both important parts of the human experience. When conservative and liberal views are articulated, people feel represented and build empathy for other views, generally making a better marketplace of ideas. As I argued in my review of “God’s Not Dead 4,” when well-made and healthy right-wing Christian content is absent, we don’t get zero right-wing Christian content, we get badly made and toxic right-wing Christian content.

We will see if Bonfire Legend’s long-term team-up with The Daily Wire eventually becomes more of the former or the latter. Right now, the quality of its latest film and its pitch to give a space for conservative religious imagination without shoving partisan politics — and its space for darker faith-friendly fare — seem like a promising beginning.

Sonnier gave his final hopes for the film:

I hope what this will do is level the playing field to an extent, not totally level, but at least a little more level to where folks like me — both folks like me politically but also folks like me who are interested in unadulterated, unfiltered, genuine content that is not neutered by studio system — can make movies, make series, make art in the entertainment world without persecution. That’s it. So come work with us, make movies with us, make great movies with us, defy everybody on Twitter who just thinks we’re going to make a bunch of garbage and let’s do something special. And let’s prove to everyone that movies can be entertaining again. That’s the goal.

“Shut In” will be available to stream for free on YouTube on Thursday, Feb. 10 at 9 p.m. EST. Afterward, it will be exclusive to paid subscribers of The Daily Wire. Visit the film’s website for the latest information.

Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.