Sean Fennessey of The Ringer’s The Big Picture podcast posted a tweet that said “The first great movie of 2023.” Below it was a photo of the new documentary film This Place Rules.
The first great movie of 2023. pic.twitter.com/is6rhCL5feJanuary 4, 2023
I had zero idea what it was or what to expect, but I’m so glad I watched it. You should watch it, too, available now on HBO Max.
The film “stars” and is made by Andrew Callaghan, a charmingly scruffy-looking guy who can’t help but remind me of T.J. Miller in appearance, who apparently got his start by interviewing people on Bourbon Street at 2 a.m. and posting their drunken answers in an outrageous online video series.
In the lead up to the 2020 election, Callaghan took his show on the road, so to speak, and began attending political rallies and interviewing the attendees.
This project was still going on when January 6, 2021, happened, and Callaghan used that dark day in American history as a sort of culmination for what would become This Place Rules. The film is a American political roadtrip, with lots of on-the-street interviews with random attendees and some longer, deeper dives into particular figures, like Alex Jones and an Atlanta family (husband, wife, and two young kids) that subscribe to QAnon nonsense.
As I said in my Letterboxd review, this film was absolute nightmare fuel. The impulse is to laugh, and there are some truly funny moments. But the comedy is a particular type of cringeworthy: It’s full of the impassioned rantings of nonsensical true believers on both extremes of the left-right political divide in America.
These are the voices that have become mainstays in American political discourse. They are still fringe beliefs, and many of us still shake our heads as we recognize them as such. But this documentary is yet another bit of proof of just how deeply the infection has spread, how normalized these beliefs have become, or, at the very least, how profitable it is for the hucksters just looking to capitalize on whatever fervent beliefs the masses seem to have at the moment.
It’s eye-opening, but it honestly doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. It felt especially familiar to my days reporting on the 2020 election in the most conservative county in all of Wyoming.
The cringeworthy comedy may not be your ideal; I don’t think it’s mine. But This Place Rules is a wonderfully low-tech documentary that shows off the most basic tenets of journalism quite well: giving people space to talk, listening intently, reserving judgment (professionally if not personally), and asking tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions.