“People do strange things when they believe they’re entitled, but they do the strangest things when they just plain believe.”
As a man best know for his blue comedies and ear for hipster geek dialogue, nobody would’ve ever accused writer/director Kevin Smith of profundity. Over the years Smith has been at his best when he’s fiercely independent (Clerks, Clerks II, Chasing Amy) or when he’s courting controversy (Dogma). The rest of his cannon has been fairly forgettable. Yet here with Red State, an independent and doggedly controversial film that has escaped mainstream release and instead premiered on-demand (after a few key one-off preview screening events), Smith has performed one of the strangest about-faces in modern film. It’s a mish-mash of genres – part psychological thriller, part horror film, part satire – and though unnervingly uneven, by many measures its Smith’s most accomplished film. And best of all – love it or hate it – it’s a film worth talking about.
***POTENTIAL SPOILERS – Read with Caution***
The film opens with a trio of interchangeable, stupid and cowardly teenage boys (the type of horndogs Smith usually populates his films with for broad gross-out comedy) who travel to the hick town of Cooper’s Dell to meet up with a woman who promised them sex over the internet. Things gets turned grotesquely on their heads, as the boys have actually been set up by a group of religious fundamentalists hell-bent on fire-and-brimstone and teaching lessons through torture and murder. At first it seemed like maybe Smith was trying to eschew not only his own films, but the sickeningly perverse and popular brand of modern horror as seen by movies like Saw and Hostel.
But alas, Smith, a member of the Tarantino generation of filmmaker movie nerds, has other tricks up his sleeve, and what starts out as a highly unlikable tale turns into something so much more. Taking a page from Hithcock’s Psycho - Smith turns the viewer’s attention from the three victims to the psychopathic religious nuts perpetrating the crimes. When we first meet Granddaddy Albin Cooper (Michael Parks – in a sterling performance that will chill you to the bone) he’s preaching to his inbred and devoted congregation at the Five Points Church (clearly inspired by the abhorrent actions of the real-life Westboro Baptist Church). I don’t know if Smith has ever seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, but he clearly knows the best way to film religious fervor is through close-ups of the believers’ faces – and the looks and gestures of these men, women and children as the preacher waxes Old Testament-style in his creepy, scratchy and impassioned voice are truly frightening. The editing and framing of this ten minute sermon scene are the greatest achievements of Smith’s career from a technical standpoint.
Eventually a horribly botched incident involving local law enforcement leads to the feds and the ATF coming down on the church’s compound for a Waco-style standoff. Its seems here that Smith’s film is a throw-back commentary on the Ruby Ridge/Waco/Oklahoma City Bombing style of homegrown terrorism, but when the ATF is given orders to “shut it down and take no one alive” – we are told they are allowed to do so because of provisions in the post 9/11 code that state any act of terrorism on American soil can be met with deadly force. The Five Points Church, with their stockpile of illegal weapons are seen not as a religious organization by the government but instead as a terrorist cell – our own organic Al Qaeda.
Apart from Michael Parks outstanding portrayal of a religious madman and cult leader, the film boasts another trio of great supporting turns. First up is Oscar-winning and board-certified real-life wacko Melissa Leo, positively electrifying as Cooper’s bat-shit insane daughter. Next, we have the one character deserving of any sympathy…Cooper’s teenage granddaughter (Kaylee DeFer) whose attempts at heroism when it comes to saving the innocent children of the cult go horribly awry. Then we have John Goodman as the local ATF field leader Joseph Keenan. Goodman delivers his best performance since Barton Fink. Along with DeFer’s character, his is the only one who even attempts to follow any kind of moral compass…but like everyone in the film he is lead astray by his orders. Cooper’s orders are from his false God…while Keenan’s are from another big G equally feared by red staters - the Government. You can see the pangs of anguish and incertitude in the long deep lines and sagging jowls of Goodman’s expressive face. Again – Smith, previously known for his dialogue – relies mostly on facial expressions to evoke the creeping horror of the situation.
All of this violence and uneven tone make Red State an uneasy film to watch up to this point, though its themes and the performances are captivating. But then there is a scene seemingly torn from Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves – a sound of heavenly trumpets that brings the stand-off to a screeching halt. It’s interesting that Smith uses this technique – as Von Trier has never shied away from controversy and though having never set foot in America, felt the need to comment harshly on it twice with the compelling Dogville and the atrocious Manderlay. But what’s even more interesting is the coda following this scene where Smith again pulls the rug out from under us. The trumpets are explained but the blood can not be washed from the hands of anyone.
It is a satire after all, folks – but unlike Von Trier or even Smith’s own farcical brethren Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) – Smith is able to make his statements about America more pointedly. For all of its unevenness and occasionally sloppy execution, one walks away from Red State with two clear messages:
Rot from within is as dangerous to America as threats from without.
Meeting violent religious fundamentalists with violence results in a world of double-edged swords where everyone gets lacerated.
He may not have created a great movie here…and by some measures, it’s not even a good one…but Smith has created a film with something to say that should leave viewers with a lot to talk about and boasts performances that will scare the bee-jesus out of you.
And never in a million years did I think I would ever compare Kevin Smith to Lars Von Trier. Who knew the fat, funny guy who bequeathed us such travesties as Jersey Girl could be so profound?