I should preface this review by saying that I have a deep and abiding love for Kevin Smith born mostly out of my love of Dogma. Dogma is also an example of what Kevin Smith has already tried to do, combine humor with a social and faithful message. He generally doesn’t delve into politics, but with a movie named Red State, you know he isn’t going to be able to avoid it.
I’ve heard Kevin say that Red State grew out of his reaction to watching footage of an interview with Fred Phelps (of Westboro Baptist Church fame) that his friend, Malcolm Ingram did for a documentary called Small Town Gay Bar. Mr. Phelps expressed his usual homophobic and hateful opinions about gay men and lesbians and Kevin was, apparently, left wondering what happens if you take a Phelps – like character and push him to the next level, or four or five extreme levels beyond that. To paraphrase Agent Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman in Red State, what if you made Phelps into a doer not a talker? Well, the answer for Kevin Smith is you land in the middle of a horror movie in which a cultish church lures gay men and curious teenage boys to their doom. The story is actually sort of convoluted, or more accurately, relies on a lot of happenstance to hang together, but basically we start with three teenage boys being kidnapped by the Five Points Church. By luck, or chance, the boys earlier sideswiped the Sheriff’s car and the Sheriff sends a deputy out to find the boys. The deputy locates the car on Five Point’s property and just as he’s about to leave, after being convinced by preacher Abin Cooper that his granddaughters are the culprits and he will pay for repairs, one of the boys escapes and there is a shoot-out inside the church. The deputy calls it in before he is shot by the preacher’s son-in-law. It turns out, the preacher has dirt on the Sheriff so rather than call in the shooting, the Sheriff, just happening to see a notice from ATF hanging on the wall regarding the Five Points Church, calls the feds and makes some kind of weapons complaint. ATF charges in the next morning attempting to execute a search warrant. Things go wrong – I won’t ruin anymore details – but let’s just say, the perhaps bumbling – or perhaps calculating – Sheriff instigates a shoot-out and the bodies pile up.
Certainly, Red State is gorey and Doug would probably need some sort of exfoliation process after watching it, but it also drives right past “horror” and lands in what I can only call the grotesque, in a “theater of the grotesque” sense. Theater of the grotesque isn’t really my forte, but it led to “theater of the absurd”, you know Beckett and Stoppard and people hanging around in garbage cans for no apparent reason, the point of which is to express, well, pain. Red State also reminded me of commedia dell’arte where political and other characters in the social hierarchy were represented by clowns wearing grotesque masks and plots were pushed to the extreme in an attempt to demonstrate hypocrisy and the self-indulgence of society, but without necessarily calling any single person out. Theater of the absurd does something similar, but usually with a tower of babel type scenario where no one is able to communicate with anyone else, reason gives way to anarchy and everything ends in silence. Red State is similar except that you start to think everyone will be silent in the end only because they will all be dead. Agent Keenan attempts to hold onto his reason, but briefly flirts with irrationality to somewhat disastrous effect. Smith does allow the Agent to return to himself and, when he does, something like salvation is achieved. Kevin Smith seems to be commenting on the role that religious zealotry plays in society as well as the interaction of religion or faith and politics, but he doesn’t suggest that one side has it right. Certainly, the ATF agents and Sheriff are bumbling and clownish, while the preacher and his “family” are bizarre caricatures and there are some strange veiled references to “domestic terrorism” all to get, I think, at the idea that if this is what the government is, should they have the kind of power the Patriot Act and other new security measures give them which is interesting to explore. But really, the commentary isn’t on any of that. It’s about extremism; it’s about what happens when every rationale, moderate instinct we have is overcome, whether by faith or by orders, or by something else entirely. It would be easy to leave it at that, but I prefer to drill one level deeper, given the current political climate, and give Kevin Smith major props because he seems to have anticipated where the level of dialogue in this nation was headed. Ultimately, Red State holds up one of those fun house distorting mirrors to the national debate and reflects back at us what happens when we stop being able to just have a conversation. It was an ambitious thing to attempt and a startling way to attempt it.
That being said, I did not like or enjoy this movie, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to. It seems to me that the flick was deliberately designed so that one could not like it. There were almost no likeable or even sensible characters in it and on the few occasions that someone tried to be sensible, the depth or seriousness of the situation was glossed over. John Goodman’s Agent Kennan is left as pretty much the sole voice of reason and the violence in the movie makes it sort of uncomfortable. That is probably the point. The one real chuckle I got out of the film was a throw-away line from John Goodman during an exchange with his second in command, played by Kevin Pollack and just as Kevin Pollack is about to respond (SPOILERS) he takes one in the eye. It’s interesting to note that Kevin Smith has said that he isn’t really good at directing action or violence sequences and in order to pull this movie off, he looked to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers for inspiration. The violence is therefore very stylized and not exactly realistic. It is still jarring, but I’m not really one for horror movies, and I didn’t find Red State too much to handle. If you’re very squeamish though, you might want to give it a miss. Given what he set out to do, I have to give Kevin Smith credit for the idea of the movie and even for some of the execution, but the way that the conflict, particularly John Goodman’s internal conflict, in the movie was glazed over seemed a little disjunctive. To be fair, I think maybe Smith only had one other option; leave out that conflict entirely and make the movie more of an Inglourious Basterds all-out-bloodbath which might not have fully achieved the message he wanted to get across. The movie is worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, the concept is just so interesting that it’s worth seeing how Kevin lets it play out. Second, the stylized violence is sort of peculiarly fascinating and just seeing it for how the movie is shot is worthwhile. Lastly, the movie was made without studio support and was made available to the fans via the internet. It never had a wide theatrical release and, as I understand it, was only screened on tour with Kevin there to discuss the film with the audience. I am dubious about labeling the film this way, but Red State becomes almost a “study” in satire, horror, and violence that could probably only be achieved by a filmmaker skirting the regular system and simply trying to bring a somewhat insane idea to life. So on my rating scale of “I want my money and two hours back” to “worth the full price ofadmission”, rating Red State is made easy by the fact that it is already out on DVD and it is worth the rental so check it out and see what Kevin’s mania does for you.