For a movie that bills itself as a “grindhouse PizzaGate satire,” there’s precious little grindhouse or Pizzagate in Duncan, the new indie thriller from Austin writer-director John Valley.
But it is a satire. A shockingly effective one. Duncan levels its weird, Texas-tinged gaze on profiteering, conspiracy-peddling mass media—your Alex Joneses of the world—and cracks them wide open.
“The movie’s about a guy out of his depth and led by an array of crackpot beliefs,” Valley told The Daily Beast. “That’s it. We can all relate to that.”
The story is simple. A fictional Jones-style TV personality gets an anonymous tip about shapeshifting lizard people eating babies at an Austin pizza joint. The lizards are Democrats, of course.
A Black aspiring journalist (a wide-eyed Alexandria Payne) and a gun-happy, ex-racist white militiaman who happens to be the son of the late cult-leader David Koresh (Tinus Seaux in an immersive performance) team up to investigate the alleged shapeshifting baby-eaters.
There’s a road trip. Spasms of violence. A very odd hostage situation. An inventive shoot-out. A confrontation on a live TV broadcast. A startling revelation.
Duncan is better than its logline implies. Yes, Valley shot the movie on the cheap. Low five figures is the rumor. Rigorous planning made up for a lack of cash. “I literally had a document with every 15 minutes of the shooting schedule mapped out,” Valley said.
It’s an Austin movie from top to bottom. “We put out the call and came up with an entirely local cast,” Valley said. “Our script was also not your typical indie fare so I think a lot of them just wanted to see what the hell we were up to.”
But for all its low-fi charm, Duncan isn’t actually grindhouse—because there’s nothing gratuitous or exploitative about it. There’s no sex or nudity. There’s bloodshed, but it’s not fun.
As for the Pizzagate aspects of the story, they’re certainly there. But they’re also beside the point. Duncan isn’t really about Pizzagate, the bizarro conspiracy theory—peddled by Jones and others—that claimed top Democrats were running a child sex ring at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
No, Duncan is about some people’s powerful need to believe in something terrible so they can imagine fighting it—and give their lives purpose.
Of course, the real-life Pizzagate turned violent in December 2016 when a North Carolina man shot up up the pizzeria while “investigating” the child sex ring that was not there. “I remember thinking, this should be a bigger deal,” Valley recalled. “Why do we have to wait for people to get shot up before we take this seriously?”
It’s not for no reason that Duncan has developed an, ahem, reputation on the film-festival circuit. Festival organizers seem to be afraid of it. “We’ve been turned down by every festival,” Valley told The Daily Beast.
But Duncan doesn’t celebrate conspiracies. It explores the media-driven culture around them and the people who make up that culture. Swap in any other right-wing fable and the story is the same. The feds’ Jade Helm invasion of Texas. The Chinese government created the novel-coronavirus to attack America. Or Pizzagate’s even more demented offshoot, QAnon.
Remarkably, Valley tells the entire story from inside that credulous culture. Literally every single major character in Duncan immediately believes the anonymous tip about lizard-people. There are no skeptics. The good guys and the bad guys are believers.
What makes the movie’s good guys good and bad guys bad isn’t what they believe. It’s how they act on what they believe. And that’s where Duncan gets really interesting. It doesn’t matter whether the lizard people in Duncan are real in the world of the movie. The people are real. And they’re the point.
“I think conspiracy theories have value in that they encourage out-of-the-box thinking and shake up your expectations,” Valley said. “They become problematic when you lose sight of reality or your own humility. They become criminal when you use them to weaponize ignorant people.”
Valley is still sorting out distribution. One way or another, Duncan should be out this year, most likely as a strictly video-on-demand title.
The pandemic could weigh on the release. “Traditional models for how movies get out are mutating fast and we’re all having to reinvent the wheel,” Valley said. “Which is pretty exciting, honestly.”