Why Do Conservatives Keep Praising Depraved Entertainment?
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a phenomenon happening within the conservative movement that continually vexes me. It is this: Staunchly conservative commentators — who otherwise would be the first to condemn sexual immorality and abuse as well as murderous violence that happens in real life — are continually taken in by fictional movies and TV shows that prominently feature said content, so much so that they produce articles and videos that publicly sing the praises of these movies and shows.
Exhibit A is National Review culture critic Armond White’s latest review of the new film “John Wick: Chapter 4,” just published this morning. For those unfamiliar with the “John Wick” series, it revolves around a former hitman, played by Keanu Reeves, who is relentlessly pursued by a series of assassins trying to kill him. Each film in the series is basically a string of set pieces featuring stylized violence and brutality, in which Wick kills every killer who crosses his path. Arguably, the entire appeal of this movie franchise is to entertain through the use of stunning visuals, stunts, and action for the purpose of portraying bad guys being killed by a highly trained “hero” in a supremely stylized, ritualistic manner.
Now, I’m not here to play the part of the conservative spoilsport babysitter looking down at other adults who choose to watch action thriller movies. You’re not going to find me calling anyone a sinful, bad person for watching “John Wick: Chapter 4.” There are undoubtedly people out there who might have a good reason to spend three hours watching almost non-stop violence. Maybe you are the kind of person who can compartmentalize brutal violence and glean other small virtues from “John Wick” (I can’t do that, but perhaps others can). Or maybe you are a cinematographer and want to see the particular visual style of the film. Or maybe you have a family member who is an actor in the film. The point is, if you as a responsible adult have honestly vetted your motives for watching a movie like this, who am I to judge?
What I do have a problem with, however, are self-professed conservatives trying to claim that movies like these are in and of themselves edifying and good, and that the general public should watch them because they somehow have redeemable value and have something valuable to say about the human condition.
In his review of “John Wick: Chapter 4,” White admits that the film “takes the nonstop choreography of mano a mano combat, foot chases, car chases, and gun violence to delirious extremes.” But then, as if to justify its existence, he later claims the movie “isn’t sadistic; it’s about Wick’s survival. Reeves perfectly embodies emotionless killing — not an anti-hero, he’s our good-guy — while Stahelski [the director] leaves us guiltless, indulging the pleasure of risk and astonishment.”
Ah, I get it. So because John Wick’s character kills dozens of people robotically, free of “sadistic” glee, we as the audience should feel “guiltless” for indulging in it. Wait, what? Later, White’s continued attempts to rationalize away partaking in a three-hour kill-fest become almost comical: “Chapter 4 distills physical and mechanized antagonism to an abstraction that allows audiences to enjoy the mayhem without feeling the threat of reality and death.” Right.
But the real kicker is how White concludes his review. After acknowledging that the movie’s “cartoon violence” is “not my ideal cinema,” he suddenly imparts on the film a “higher sensibility” for teaching the audience that “weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.” But it gets worse. He then bizarrely claims in the review’s final sentence that “John Wick: Chapter 4” “fulfills the primal need to discharge our social frustrations about living in contemporary hell.” What White is claiming, in essence, is that the movie’s violence and killing is actually cathartic for the audience because it serves as an outlet for our frustrations, even to the point of fulfilling a “primal need.”
This is dangerous ground to tread on, and a particularly disappointing argument for a writer at National Review to be making. By this same logic, a movie with pornographic sexual content would also serve a “primal need” for the audience because it could serve as an outlet (to paraphrase White’s words) in which to “discharge our [sexual] frustrations.” Does this type of argument sound familiar? It’s exactly the kind of argument that many on the Left make to justify pornography.
Arguably an even more egregious example of a prominent conservative heaping praise on filth is Ben Shapiro’s multi-part video reviews of “Game of Thrones” a few years back. For those unfamiliar with the HBO series, “Game of Thrones” ran from 2011-2019 and became a massive cultural phenomenon largely because of its shock value. It became infamous as the first “mainstream show” to feature egregious amounts of nudity, sex, and a previously unseen level of brutal violence, including torture. Perhaps most infamously, it featured a violently graphic depiction of rape, in which the actress confessed to resorting to vodka in order to get through filming, all while crying in the bathroom and feeling “helpless.”
Still, Shapiro — arguably one of the conservative movement’s most articulate and staunch defenders — found the time to publicly display how much of a fanboy of “Game of Thrones” he was by meticulously dissecting the plots and character development of a number of the show’s episodes in a series of Daily Wire videos, garnering millions of views.
To a certain extent, I understand what’s going on here. Public conservative intellectuals don’t want to seem like old-timer fuddy-duddies who wag their fingers at what the kids are watching. They instead want to appear “culturally relevant” by showing that they too can appreciate the wider culture’s current entertainment obsession, no matter how debauched or depraved it actually is, because it’s just “entertainment,” after all.
It’s certainly true that the conservative movement must fully engage and analyze the entertainment industry and popular culture. But there’s a bright red line between giving largely positive reviews of depraved movies and shows and honestly critiquing the vile content in entertainment and warning against it. As conservatives, we must realize the glaring hypocrisy that is occurring here. On the one hand, we constantly rail against societal ills, particularly sexual perversion and rebellion in all its forms. But then we shrug our shoulders at the filth present in films and shows we happen to like. Sadly, it seems that this lamentable tradition started decades ago. National Review founder William F. Buckley on the one hand castigated Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner for rewriting the Ten Commandments but later had his articles published in Playboy as well as Penthouse.
An obvious blind spot exists here for conservatives, but we can easily start correcting it. When the conservative movement writes about entertainment that should be consumed, how about we recommend films and shows that are genuinely enriching? A few recent examples could include “Jesus Revolution,” “On a Wing and a Prayer,” “The Chosen,” “A Hidden Life,” etc. There are too many genuinely good shows and films out there for conservatives to be wasting their time writing about drivel like “John Wick 4.”
Fellow conservatives, I beg you: let’s stop drawing people’s attention to depravity just because it provides some cheap thrills. We must cure ourselves of “Yes, it has gratuitous sex and violence, but the acting is great!” syndrome. Let’s instead point people to films and shows that are genuinely edifying for the soul and have something beautiful to say about the human condition. As conservatives, we must do better.
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.