Miguel Penabella | 23 December 2011
Dir. Kevin Smith, 2011
Essentially a satirical take on extremist, homophobic religious groups disguised as a lowbrow horror film, director Kevin Smith’s Red State dares audiences to take it seriously. Its over-the-top caricatures of organized religion and American bureaucracy, its Eli Roth-esque campy gawkiness veiled under harsh violence, its consistent role reversals and traces of moral ambiguity – these are all elements that work together in fabricating a mocking, contemplative look at modern America. Nevertheless, Red State has sparked a fury of debate amongst the film community over the actual worth of the director’s inherent political, social, and religious commentary underneath his glib sleaze and camp, topics that feel alien to the director’s cult comedies, though actually fit quite nicely into Kevin Smith’s long, proud history of not giving a fuck. Smith operates in a defiantly alternative filmmaking register, mixing the maniacal with the refined in order to play a chaotic game with audiences to toy with their expectations and emotions. The impact of Red State slowly seeps through long after the credits roll, a resonance that reveals more than Smith’s surface pleasures of Eli Roth/Rob Zombie-esque violence and storytelling. Nevertheless, the eternal question still arises over whether or not Kevin Smith’s rant against church and state is really as multifaceted as it’s made out to be.
Smith stabs indiscriminately at relevance, examining multiple topics all at once to make for an unfocused storyline and a disorganized thematic center as if the director hastily jotted down random thoughts for a script simply for the sake of in-the-moment blogosphere discussion. Rather than actually fleshing out concrete thoughts on the thematic elements of Red State, specifically modern homophobia, corrupted organized religion, and the inane American bureaucracy, he simply blusters. Of course, the end result is visceral, angry, and dark, but Red State is by no means as commanding as Smith’s 1999 Dogma, a film in which his deep study into Catholicism gives it greater narrative strength. Nevertheless, the director’s trademark wry humor remains and an essence of modern paranoia can be discerned from the messy tangle of images and arguments assembled. The tangle begins with three horny teenage boys looking for sex – Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jared (Kyle Gallner) – via an invitation from Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo in an unfortunately negligible role following her Oscar success in 2010’s The Fighter) on an online sex website.
Like all great movies of this caliber, the sexual fantasy of the three teenagers quickly turns into a nightmare after being drugged by Sarah and finally waking up caged in the middle of a service by a cult-like extremist religious group known as the Five Points Trinity Church. Kevin Smith channels the dark atmospherics of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, envisioning a bright, cheery church above and a nightmarish hell down below where the boys are trapped to the maniacal whims of the crazed church members. Red State develops its tension and imagery from its derivative setup, channeling the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw Massacre but also films like Deliverance and Hostel. Yet what really creates such a terrifying quality to the unfolding events rests in Smith’s portrayal of the three teenagers’ aggressors, the Five Points Trinity Church. Absent from the church are the horrid-looking Deliverance/Texas Chain Saw Massacre characters (though a mild semblance of country dialect remains), opting instead for a normal bunch of folks conditioned by the ultra-radical, single-minded Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Described as so radical that even neo-Nazis and ultraconservatives like the real-life Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas avoid him, Cooper heads the congregation whose isolation from the rest of society harkens back to the crazed Waco cult and the obscure secrecy of Scientology.
The mundane appearance of the Five Points churchgoers quickly shatters when Cooper delivers a hate-filled rant before a cloaked and tied victim, a rant that his audiences quickly digest out of brainwashing, sensationalism, and the pastor’s own forceful, commanding energy. Smith pushes his depiction of Christian extremism to its limits, showing the effects of unsubstantiated, sensationalized religious rhetoric on an increasingly cult-like group. Cooper pleads the first amendment for his right to protest at funerals and the second amendment for his arsenal of weaponry he sits on for “security purposes,” further dramatizing his caricature of modern organized religion as organized army. And while Kevin Smith relentlessly drives for a radical view on religious fanaticism that might push Red State over the cliff of believability, his depictions promptly call to mind that beliefs like these actually exist in America, affirming that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Driving the credibility home is actor Michael Parks, whose acting talents exhibit fiery and vicious speech but also warm, believable humanness when the pastor eventually steps down from his explosive sermons. Parks’ groundbreaking acting performance as Pastor Cooper finds a sense of sinister villainy and determined idealism from the very start, but what makes the character such an able villain rests in Parks’ ability to mask his evil with tenderness, charm, and genuine charisma. Cooper maintains an off-putting optimism while sitting atop his throne of homophobia, violence, and hatred, an element that exacerbates his menacing, cheerful sadism when contrasted with his human actions – bonding with children, sharing jokes with the police, singing and dancing. Michael Parks is very close to being utterly perfect in his role, capturing the feverous energy and arrogance of his real-life parallels, specifically those aforementioned figures from WBC. Nevertheless, Cooper’s occasionally soft-spoken, gentle demeanor overshadows all other characters in Red State, a factor that is very problematic because the most likable character when the credits roll turns out to be the one Smith aims to condemn.
Finding a moral center in Kevin Smith’s fidgety, erratic film proves quite difficult because Smith aims for a Coen brothers vibe, ultimately concluding that all human beings are fickle and senseless à la Burn After Reading or Fargo. Yet what Smith overlooks is that these two films do actually have a character to latch unto despite the Coen brothers’ penchant for misanthropy, like Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson or Richard Jenkins’ Ted Treffon. In Red State, the original trio of teenage boys clearly lacks the moral strength necessary to back the film’s inherent sociopolitical/religious messages, leaving ATF Special Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) as the upright protagonist. Unfortunately, Smith is also interested in critiquing the inane bureaucracy of law enforcement (a topic of significance after the controversies surrounding the police raid in the Waco compound), thus leaving Goodman’s character distant and ultimately unapproachable as an identifiable character. Sticking mostly to an omniscient point of view as Red State weaves in and out of perspectives, the film plays it too safe over a topic that Smith clearly has ideas on, and his discourse isn’t as engaging as it should be. Teenage Five Points apostate Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) momentarily takes on the role of moral center but Smith makes clear that he has no interest in developing her character as the main hero to follow, instead continuing his presentation of modern day topics rather than actually formulating coherent answers.
Regardless, Kevin Smith still manages to construct a fairly engaging “horror” movie at times, employing all the typical clichés successfully to make for a fast-paced, visceral picture. Escape sequences filmed with hand-held camerawork, fast cuts, and claustrophobic hallways inject moments with fire and brimstone, leaving scenes with a tense, often frightening quality. The filmmaker also attempts to channel Quentin Tarantino’s ability to employ dialogue as a means of building tension but to a much lesser realization, leaving Red State with less engaging, less dynamic shot reverse shot dialogue essential to draw true suspense. One would assume that a director whose work experimenting with language and atmospherics (in comedy of all genres) to draw out excitement for a cathartic punch line (Clerks, the obvious example) would manage to deliver the same level of expectation as Inglourious Basterds’ opening cross-examination scene, but Smith fails to construct meaningful dialogue. And this failure is a significant problem given that Red State is a very talkative film, but Smith somehow pieces together his picture efficiently enough to keep it from being a true slog to experience.
If one of the main things we ask out of Red State is that Kevin Smith avoid presenting a strenuous plot device, then the incoherent, senseless shootout that transpires on and off for approximately half an hour (much like the bafflingly slow Inception van fall) contributes profoundly to viewer malaise. Unlike Rob Zombie’s magnificent construction of a desperate opening shootout in The Devil’s Rejects, Red State’s shootout lags on against Smith’s own dying vision. Luckily, the film accelerates during the last half hour before Smith implements a troubling series of anticlimax and deus ex machina to supplement his commentary on the sporadic nature of providence and that unexpected occurrence can completely and permanently change the direction of a narrative, a style that Smith derives from the Coen brothers’ more successful work in deus ex machina seen in films like A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men. What may have seemed intellectually profound on paper as a scrutiny on the voids left by unsubstantiated resolutions and abrupt falling actions actually carries with it a sinister stigma that Smith is merely tired of protracting Red State any longer, a factor that may explain why the movie runs a meager 88 minutes long.
During the last stretches of film, a Coen brothers-aspiring, farcical deus ex machina emerges that insinuates a completely off-the-wall resolution to the conflict built up over the course of the entire movie. Nevertheless, Smith decides against using the implied resolution, instead rushing to close Red State with an abrupt ending meant to draw attention to the incompetence of American bureaucratic politics and the police force in the vein of Burn After Reading’s anti-conclusion conclusion. Yet Smith’s theatrical ending is a toothless, unsatisfying affair and a far cry from the film’s earlier critique of homophobia and religion. I would have gone with the more ambitious, even more deus ex machina of a deus ex machina dénouement which I won’t go on to spoil here but can be found on the Wikipedia page for Red State, a far more daring finale more in the vein of Smith’s unflinching storytelling vision and tongue-in-cheek farce.
After amassing such a solid collection of capable actors and actresses and a contemporary issue rife with possibilities for cinematic analysis, Red State comes up short on delivering profound insight on religion and politics, instead consisting of long-winded monologues and unambitious plotlines. Kevin Smith’s own impatient, easily distracted direction leads to cop out after cop out, stumbling towards a pathetic ending meant to tie together a scattershot story beyond repair. Holistically, the film contains just enough pleasantries – namely Michael Parks’ fantastic acting performance – to stave off total disapproval over Smith’s muddled storytelling, though Red State offers no exit from its overly serious exploitation once the film bombards audiences with rambling, half-explored themes and an unfocused narrative with an uncanny ability to bludgeon viewers into total submission amidst the chaos on screen. Rather than evaluate and pick apart present-day topics with the director’s poisonous wit and insight, Red State is less cinematic shorthand for settling matters of church and state than it is for a director grasping for short-term blogosphere cult status.