Red State (2011)
Kevin Smith, love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man is a natural promoter. Earlier in the year, the indie filmmaker self-distributed his first foray into horror films, Red State, on a nationwide tour of screenings. I first saw Red State way back in March when Smith visited Springfield, Ohio to screen the film and then answer questions afterwards. I’ve been trying to wrestle with my critical opinion in the ensuing months. Fortunately for me, Smith has made it extremely easy to revisit my thoughts. Red State eschewed the traditional theatrical release pattern for a new digital-age model. It was available on demand through cable systems, available for download, and even broadcast in special theaters for a one-night only event. A month later the film hit DVD. In its better moments, Red State is the unholy union of Quentin Tarantino’s love of language, and penchant for jolting violence, and the Coen brothers’ nihilistic, cock-eyed sensibilities. This is strange new territory for the man. I wish I could say Red State is worthy of all the attention, though this sinister, messy, gritty little movie can work its wicked mojo, at least for a while.
The Five Points Church is a notorious family-operated cult. Under the guidance of their shepherd, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), this fundamentalist Christian group pickets the funerals of dead soldiers, haranguing the grieved that their loved ones are dead because “God hates fags” (excuse me for failing to put two and two together). A group of teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) is lured to Sara’s (Melissa Leo) trailer with the promise of sex. The middle-aged woman plies her young bucks with drinks and they are knocked out. The boys awaken to find they are inside the Five Points compound and witness to Abin Cooper’s solution to sinners. Rather than railing with signs, the family has decided to take a more hands-on approach and execute them. While this is going on, a sheriff’s deputy alerts the authorities and the ATF rolls up to the compound. Lead by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), the government agency engages in a firefight with the rightwing cult. Ordered to take down the compound, and all witnesses, the various characters will try and escape with their lives, never knowing when that fateful moment of atonement may drop.
What Smith does well for a genre novice is to keep his audience constantly upended. Just when we think we’ve settled on a protagonist and a plotline, suddenly Smith switches gears. The surprises are sudden and often merciless, leaving the audience little room to adjust. In a genre usually beholden to formula, the consistency of Smith’s surprises makes for a darkly satisfying viewing. Watching Red State demands due attention. Naturally, not all of these tonal shifts work to the movie’s best interest. The final shift, to all-out action thriller, is the most leaden. The Ruby Ridge/Waco-style standoff allows for a lot of gunfire but very little action. We mostly just cut back and forth between the two sides firing and, inexplicably high numbers, being shot in the face. It can get repetitive and seem like all the mounting tension gets squandered. There is a nice storyline within of one family member, Cheyenne (Kerry Bische), forming a plan to save the compound’s children and escape. Bische (the lead on the last season of TV’s Scrubs) makes fantastic use of her limited screen time to render the anxiety and fear of her character. She’s second only to Parks in the performance department as far as I’m concerned. Then the climax comes along and Smith teases being audacious, going in a fire-and-brimstone angle that would completely obliterate audience expectations. And just when it seems like we’re about to get something radical… Smith falls back to what he knows – dialogue. For the final five minutes, Smith concludes his narrative with two government officials explaining what happened in florid detail. It’s a fairly big letdown.
The setup of luring teens to their doom is an old horror staple, though usually the ones doing the sacrifices are card-carrying Satanists. And when exactly would a Satanist be in a situation needing to prove their validity with a membership card (“I’m sorry Mr. Darkseed, but we can’t give you the ten percent discount on all those goat skulls unless we see some valid photo ID.”)? Smith flips the switch religious allegiance. Instead of Satanists or some other misunderstood fringe religion, the cult is a group of pious Christians. There’s plenty of room to work here and Smith refrains from making easy associations; the Five Points nutjobs aren’t meant to represent Christians as a whole or Christianity. They are extremists, and they will go to extreme measures. Ostensibly based upon the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, you keep waiting for Smith to satirically carve up the clan, but this never really occurs beyond the superficial. Smith’s writerly instincts give Abin Cooper a ten-minute sermon/platform where the guy just unloads a hate-filled diatribe against homosexuals and progressives. For many, this will be the make it or break it point of the film. There are some genuinely tense moments to the first half of Red State. There’s one scene where the camera holds on Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) inside a wired cage. He rattles and screams and generally comes unglued, and we too piece together what he hears, dreading what is to come. The many escapes and narrow calls are also harrowing and finely edited to ratchet up suspense.
It seems, though, that Smith’s bleak screenplay does not present any characters we can truly root for. Horror has been shifting this way for the past twenty years. Thanks to the rise of the slasher flick, audience empathy has shifted from being with the running/screaming victims to being with the gruesome yet personable killers. Red State has a high body count but you won’t feel much when those bodies hit the floor. You’ll feel a jolt of shock, but from an empathy standpoint the needle barely registers. Sure, we don’t want people to be tortured and we want the abused to escape torment, but that’s not the same as characterization. The closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) feels like the start of an idea more than anything else. The trio of teen boys is presented with as little care as any other throwaway slasher flick. They are but meat for the grinder, our entryway into this hidden and spooky fundamental world. These aren’t so much characters as bodies waiting to be slain. The people are set up so they can be knocked down. This issue can become troubling when Smith wants us to rethink our loyalties, especially once the siege has begun. He wants us, dares us, to start feeling empathy for members of the Five Points Church. The problem is that the plot’s adherence to shock value and the underbelly of human nature has desensitized our empathy. When the ATF starts firing most in the audience will probably just cheer, not reflectively question the moral relativism. I doubt anyone will be switching allegiances midway through.
Cults are usually held together with a charismatic leader, and Red State has that in spades with Parks. The man just dissolves into his twisted character, a preacher that uses the Word of God to indoctrinate and arm for his own holy war. Parks has done fine supporting work before in the stable of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, but Red State is the actor’s biggest modern showcase yet. The man makes your skin crawl the way he can wrap hate into a honeyed, easily digestible product. Abin holds sway over his flock and likewise Parks commands the screen. He provides grandeur and menace to Smith’s words. It’s not a scenery-chewing performance; Parks doesn’t go for the obvious notes when he can hit something deeper and more unsettling. You get a sense that this man fully believes the dogma he teaches, and that makes him all the more terrifying. The other actors peopling Red State are fine, though Leo (Oscar-winner for The Fighter) seems a bit unrestrained especially in contrast with Parks. Goodman (TV’s Treme) gets to talk on the phone a lot to his unseen superiors. The end of the film just descends into frenzied yelling on everyone’s part.
Credited as a horror movie, though I view it more of a survivalist thriller but I suppose genre specifications are subjective, regardless, Red State is miles away from Smith’s usual output. The movie has its share of creeping dread and menace, thanks to Parks’ transfixing performance. The screenplay is unrepentantly dark, cruelly cutting down lives with shocking acuity. The constant surprises and upheavals are a way to keep the audience guessing, though the shock value starts to wear off by the noisy, repetitive gun battle climax. It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of commentary Smith is presenting. Obviously he doesn’t side with the hateful fundamentalists (this is probably why he pulls back at the end), but he also shows the government’s reaction to religious zealots to be morally queasy at best. It’s hard to get a read what the commentary is, and with horror, if you don’t take a stab at commentary then you’re just watching high-gloss snuff films. Red State resembles a snuff film in several ways and not just in its grimy aesthetics. You feel a little dirty after it’s over, and you can’t help but question your motives for watching it. Plus you can’t help but think it could have been better done (note: I have never watched an actual snuff film, you sickos, but the point remains).
Nate’s Grade: B-