Movie Review - Red State
An unlikely film from that Kevin Smith.
That’s the tagline for Red State and boy…they were definitely going for understatement there, weren’t they?
The interesting thing about horror films, for me anyway, is the vast amount of ground that they can cover. Sure, you can go with the classic monsters, Dracula, Frankensein’s Monster and the like…be it Universal’s interpretation…or Hammer’s, or even some of the newer takes. You can shuffle with zombies, take to outer space with Predators or Xenomorphs and of course there’s always the slasher. And yes, a guy in a hockey mask wielding a machete can indeed be terrifying…but for me, there’s nothing more terrifying than that which really could…or really is…happening. While created in a time where these sort of events were on the fringes, isolated incidents, the continued dissolution of civil discourse these days has an eerie impact on Red State, one cannot help but wonder not if such things will occur…but when. I’ve got a lot to say here so before we dive deep, let’s take a look at the synopsis:
Lured in with the promise of sex, three high school boys find themselves staring down their own personal apocalypses as they’re taken captive by a group of Christian fundamentalists, armed to the teeth and ready to welcome their long-awaited Rapture. A minor slip-up and a dead sheriff’s deputy end up drawing the attention of ATF under the command of a very world-weary special agent. Both sides have received their orders from their higher authorities: No one survives. Will it be the laws of man or the laws of God that triumph this day?
The seeds for Red State were planted when a friend of Smith's was able to interview the infamous Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church...you know, the "God Hates Fags" schmucks. Enthralled by the footage his friend didn't use in the documentary, the idea quickly germinated into a script. This Phelps influence is readily apparent in the opening of the film as Pastor Abin Cooper, played remarkably by Michael Parks, and his clan are found protesting outside the funeral of a recently deceased gay teen…that they just might have had a hand in. Once we get past this, we find our three protagonists planning their upcoming hook-up, not knowing what fate has in store for them. This part of the film lands us very firmly in territory Smith is known for, feeling as though it could have been torn right from any of his Askewniverse films…well, except there’s no comic book references…and the fact that we don’t even get a pot reference until the end of the film. I do have to admit that objectively, having Smith open the film not only delving into his own tropes, but also that of the standard set up for many horror movies (horny teens looking for a good time), well, let’s simply say it's a necessary start to the proceedings and certainly an understandable one…but not necessarily the BEST approach that might have been taken here.
By the time we find ourselves within the compound, this becomes a VERY different movie and for those familiar with Smith’s oeuvre, there’s no way that you could ever see something like this coming. Everything is set up so as to be unsettling. The film grain is courser, giving a grittiness to the image, plenty of Steadicam footage…in some way presaging the current use of GoPro shots in films…all of this creating a heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings. For a guy known primarily for stoner films and dick and fart jokes, you can’t deny that Kev’s extremely adept to this darker side of filmmaking. While there aren’t many scenes in the film with gore, the times they do arise it’s handled exceptionally well. Mind you, any gore-hounds here are likely to be disappointed, all we really get are a series of gunshot wounds of varying degrees, everything from a grazing to heads blown clean off, but what we are presented with is done so in an unflinching manner. You will see the horror of gunplay with assault rifles…and it will be unpleasant.
While I’ve already lauded Michael Parks’ performance, other notable stand outs included John Goodman as ATF Special Agent Joe Keenan. His portrayal is in some ways heartbreaking, as he gives us an agent that knows the right thing to do and will push for it once…maybe twice…but he’s been in the system long enough to know that there’s no reason to risk your job or paycheck just because you don’t agree with the orders from on high. There’s no heroic posturing or pretense here. The fact that he ultimately decides to go along with the orders from his superiors, that everyone, including the hostages, must die to avoid any perception of wrongdoing on the part of the government only adds to oppressive atmosphere that Smith has already created up to this point. Kevin Pollack as his assistant, Special Agent Brooks, alleviates this in some ways with some sarcastic humor, something that you knew Smith wouldn’t be able to completely exorcise from the script, and I’d certainly love to see a buddy-cop movie with these two in it given their immediate chemistry. The only usual Kevin Smith cohort we see in the film is Ralph Garman, who plays one of the members of the fanatical church pretty well, especially conveying the threat of the ‘true believer’…although, granted, some of this might be thanks to his role of Caleb being a non-speaking role. In fact, that praise can be levied at Melissa Leo and all the other actors playing these religious zealots (including Smith’s wife, Jen Schwalbach), all of them encapsulating the looks and attitudes of those who have clung to their beliefs so tightly that they’ve eschewed any form of reason or sense. If there are any weak links in the cast, sadly I’d have to say that might fall on our three protagonists…however, I’m not entirely sure it’s something you can lay the blame for at their feet. The typical horror movie approach would be that we as the audience would find ourselves bonding with these three as the film progresses, but for me they just came off as people I couldn’t come to care for. It’s not that their actions and reactions were unfounded, heck, none of them fall into the usual horror movie tropes of making incredibly dumb decisions that would lead to their demise, but sadly they do little to try and redeem themselves after getting themselves into this mess to begin with. Realistically though, not everyone grows from a crisis and perhaps Smith is to be praised for illustrating that here.
The true terror of this film may reside in how prophetic it ends up being. When the seeds were sown for this film, remember that instances such as Ruby Ridge or the Branch Davidians…hell, even Columbine…were isolated incidents that still had the power to shock and appall the entire nation. Now we find ourselves in a nation where there are continuous heated debates on where firearms belong in our culture and far too many citizens have been inducted so deeply into a cult of personality that they take on the speech and mannerisms of a ‘true believer’. Let me be clear, I’ve always been a champion of this film since it was released, but now that we live in a time where one man can incite over 100,000 people into an insurrection against the government? Red State ends up being terrifyingly prescient, perhaps most especially in its title. But even if you divorce it from that particular instance, the most recent trends of bible-thumping, either from the clergy or politicians looking to play on people’s beliefs, is to quote a verse here or a verse there, putting forward chapter and verse as though it’s a special code that gives what they’re about to spew added significance or weight…all the while forgetting the entire message put forth by the man they claim to worship “Hey, just be nice to one another” again comes across with such foresight as to be unsettling. 11 years beyond its initial release, I cannot help but wonder what Smith’s thoughts on this film are and if he’s just as terrified as I am as to its implications and just how much it got right.
While there are a handful of uneven performances, the radical change from Kevin Smith’s usual output and tone as well as being terrifyingly a decade ahead of its time, Red State is worth watching for those two reasons alone. The fact that it has standout performances from Parks, Goodman and Pollack only sweetens the deal. The only thing that holds the film back from our highest rating is that there are just enough Smith-isms that it can draw you out of the film in a couple of scenes. Still, to end up with a very high-end Happy Cat? That ain’t so bad!