A look into the recent past that may just be prophetic about the future, ‘This Place Rules’ highlights the way America itself has become unhinged.
Callaghan had gained a following for his unique approach to interviewing people in odd situations and drawing out confessions that could range from cringe-worthy to downright chilling. In particular, it was his exploration of conspiracies and extremist right-wing groups that made his videos into something more than they may seem on the goofy surface. That brings us to This Place Rules, a travelogue documentary of sorts that takes place over several weeks in the lead-up to the January 6th insurrection. It is important to note that none of this is really about that day as it takes a different tactic in looking at the broader context of what Callaghan saw as he traveled throughout the country before it. This is not a detriment by any means as other documentaries by journalists have provided a thorough timeline of what took place there. Callaghan is not a conventional journalist as he is more interested in excavating comedy from eccentricity that can be entertaining for just how bizarre it is. However, there is a more engaging undercurrent to it all about the power and prevalence of lies that is where the documentary is at its best.
So while he still has a radar for people who will begin rapping to him, somehow oblivious to how truly terrible they are at it, and a sense for finding humor in places others would not even think to go to, the most compelling aspects come from when it settles into something far more focused. There are a lot of other scattered interviews and distractions that hold This Place Rules from being as resonant as it is striving to be. Much of this may be because of how it is trying to provide a refresher on what the mindset was of the country at that time following the election. We see some people drunkenly shouting and celebrating on the streets while others began to spread lies about the results themselves. Plus, there is an extended interview Callaghan does with a rambling Alex Jones that is intercut with the latter lifting weights while shirtless as alcohol is being poured into his mouth. What does this have to do with the prevailing portrait the documentary is trying to craft about the state of the country and those corrupting it? To be frank, not a whole lot, even when there are interjections with narration that tries to wrangle all the silliness into something coherent. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, including a clip when we see Callaghan actually going on Jones’ show where he is clearly messing with him before subsequently criticizing him, though the humor starts to wear thin after a while and undercuts the more serious elements of everything else around it.
The centerpiece of where the documentary is most intriguing is when it looks at a family of QAnon adherents at about fifty minutes in. While much has been written when it comes to the conspiracy and why people hitch themselves to it, actually seeing the impact that this has on children is terrifying. Just as they want to play with Beyblades and Nerf Guns, they also repeat how there are evil Satanists putting ground-up babies in McDonald’s food. The juxtaposition between these moments, with the family letting Callaghan into their home either unaware or uncaring about how this looks, gets under your skin. There is a part of it that is ridiculous, like how the sign for Chipotle contains a supposedly horrifying hidden meaning, but any laughs soon stop when we hear of how the kids have lost all their friends as a result of their parents. This is the precarious part of America that can be hard to look at yet is integral to understanding, at least part of how the fabric of the country is fraying. It is easy to dismiss this as being fringe, but it is clearly much more than that. What Callaghan reveals is how there are entire networks of grifters preying upon people who then get lost in this fear, harming themselves and others. It is harrowing stuff that the documentary would have been better off in more comprehensively grappling with. Unfortunately, much of it feels like it is offloading all the footage from various travels, regardless of how it all ends up fitting together.
There are still enough pieces that end up falling into place, even as they get jumbled up in everything else. One other man that the documentary focuses on early on is spouting conspiracies and essentially living alone, spiraling further into hate in complete isolation. He soon gets left behind with Callaghan briefly referencing how he is not allowed to travel outside the state. It is a throwaway moment, but the reasons for why he couldn’t leave soon comes into focus when we rejoin him later at a diner. He is still living in denial even when he gets confronted with his own hypocrisy and deception. We discover that all that he purports to oppose is actually a cover for his own actions that he still will not take accountability for. As everything else winds down in revealing how the significant players in the January 6th insurrection emerged without any consequence, the discomforting truth remains that all of this can happen again because of people like this. It may not look the same, but the foundations are still there for further decline.
With This Place Rules, Callaghan has captured who America actually is on a larger canvas, and while the manner in which he paints lessens its impact, who we are underneath it all is where it finds slices of grim truth all the same.
This Place Rules is on HBO Max starting December 30.