Whenever you sit back and really think about it, the power which the media has is absolutely terrifying in its ability to convince others of conspiracies which on their face are outright absurd…
…One such conspiracy was Pizzagate, a theory which gained traction in 2016 after right-wing conservatives convinced their followers that leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, contained coded messages that linked high-ranking Democratic officials and establishments (in particular, Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C.), to a child sex-trafficking ring in which they worshipped Satan and drank the blood of children. Oh, and that the people running the whole thing were actually a race of lizard people hiding under human skin. Woof, that’s a lot to take in. Well, it wasn’t too insane for the media to brainwash a whole bunch of people into believing it, a concept ripe for satire, and which writer/director John Valley’s Duncan tackles with results as mixed as the toppings on a pizza covered in “the works”.
Having just made its Regional Premiere at Panic Fest, Duncan is a kooky, dark satire that follows Karen (Alexandria Payne) who, after getting fired on her first day working for conspiracy-theory mud-slinger Terri (Lee Eddy), teams up with militia nutter Duncan (Tinus Seaux) to travel to Tootz Pizza in Austin, Texas, where they plan to make a documentary out of exposing it for the child-trafficking, Lizard people hideout they believe it really is.
That may sound like a premise ripe for absurd laughs, but Valley takes the film down a more unexpected path of darkness and tragedy that, while surprising, results in an under-cooked meal that could’ve used another handful of cheese.
Things start out as quirky as you might expect. We’re witness to a fire and brimstone rant from Terri that begs the question of how anyone could ever buy her nonsense. An unnecessarily intense bout of paintballing introduces us to Duncan’s nemesis, Philip (played by John Valley, hamming it up at just the right level). The militia in which Duncan and Philip are a part of debates the “how” of Lizard people having sex with humans. And…you get the idea. Valley takes the time to introduce us to the lifestyle of white supremacist nuts, putting on full display personalities that are desperate to be a part of something larger than themselves and who need something to fight for, laying the perfect breeding ground for belief in conspiracies that not only make them feel smarter than others, but like they have some importance in bringing the bad guys, or lizard people, down.
What’s odd—for a film already turned to eleven on the odd scale—is how straight Valley plays the comedy. While some filmmakers might have chosen to lean into the wilder aspects of the premise, Valley instead presents a tonally serious world, perhaps to put on display how real these nutty conspiracies are to their believers. So instead of something stylish and over-the-top, Duncan instead comes off more like a straight-forward, dark crime drama as Karen and Duncan find themselves on a journey which tears open the wounds that have led them here. What starts as fun nonsense quickly rips off the lizard mask and aims to expose the scarred humanity beneath.
For better or worse, the lizard people conspiracy becomes more of an afterthought as the focus is put on Duncan and his past. For those of you expecting a wild horror comedy about lizard people, this isn’t it. Instead, Valley uses Duncan as a commentary on how the media and generations of white supremacy have warped the minds of those who feel left behind. In that sense, Duncan is a success in achieving what it wants by getting us to feel something for these characters, but one of the film’s greatest flaws is in how much it pushes this sympathy. Karen is a black woman, and there’s room for interesting conversations when she discovers Duncan sports confederate flags on his truck, but this and moments like it instead fall flat, with Duncan offering the typical “it’s heritage” argument. We see signs throughout of Duncan regretting a history of white supremacist beliefs, but the fact of the matter is it’s difficult to get an audience on the side of a white supremacist, “ex” or not, especially at a time when people would rather vomit than offer any condolences to a “sorry” racist. In a story where Karen and her willingness to go along with Duncan and these conspiracies is far more worthwhile, she instead becomes a prop for Duncan’s attempt at a redemption story.
None of that is to say that Duncan isn’t an intriguing character, he is, and Seaux gives a great performance as a confused individual who doesn’t understand the world around him as well as he thinks he does, but it isn’t easy to go along with a film that seems to want us to root for a guy who is, at best, an ex white supremacist on a path to waking the hell up, no matter how much they’ve been “manipulated”. This is only my opinion though on a topic that rubs me the wrong way, and I commend Valley for digging into the wounds of a difficult conversation.
The presentation of Duncan also leaves a lot to be desired. For a film that leans into the consequences of media manipulation, Duncan lacks the gritty 70s crime drama vibe it seeks to replicate. Erik Gatling and Valley’s sinister score works overtime to add an intensity to the film that doesn’t come around until the final act, despite some occasional bloody violence working its way in throughout.
Where Duncan works best is the way in which it lays bare the fact that we live in a confusing world, where morality isn’t black and white and lies can just as easily be truth, depending on who’s listening. Duncan’s commentary on the media provides a handful of powerful moments that will resonate with viewers long after the credits roll. It may be a tonally confusing movie that misses the mark emotionally, but it’s message is clear, and it’s a strong one: There’s a danger in a world where truth is whatever the media says it is, and where we have said “truth” being spouted by competing networks and hosts seeking a more compelling “truth” than others. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves, who are the real lizard people here?
Worth a watch for those who like their movies weird with a capital W.
By Matt Konopka