Sunday, 11 March 2012

Red State

2011
Dir. Kevin Smith

When three teenage friends answer an online invitation for sex, they are kidnapped by a sinister fundamentalist Christian group who plan on punishing them, Old Testament style, for their sexual ‘deviancy.’

The prospect of Kevin Smith addressing the extremes of fundamentalist Christianity through the conventions of horror cinema is, for this writer anyway, an utterly irresistible one. Smith already addressed the extremity of organised religion in Dogma, which, while rather plodding and uneven, was still an interesting departure for the director, famed for his lo-fi slacker-driven stories. While Red State may be a different beast entirely, it also sadly slides into unevenness as the plot eventually crumbles under weighty speeches and a limp, exposition-heavy finale. Differing from the usual religious horror, the threat in Red State comes not from Satan or the occult, but from fundamentalist God-fearers who believe their faith entitles them to carry out atrocities against humanity in the name of God. Inspired by the downright abhorrent, unsavoury and homophobic Westboro Baptist church, Smith’s film has so much promise, and while he does attempt to address heated topics such as the picketing of gay funerals by religious extremists and the indoctrination of the young into what is essentially a religious cult, his first foray into horror sadly runs out of ammunition before trundling into a half-hearted and underdeveloped slump. This could have been such a powerful film about the extremes of fundamentalist Christianity and an exploration of the frighteningly real attitudes of a dangerous minority. Instead it just unravels to deliver increasing disappointment.



It is essentially a film of two parts. The first is a genuinely taut and distressing horror narrative inspired by religious extremism and filtered through torture porn aesthetics. The three teens who find themselves abducted by the bible bashing right-wingers are somewhat typical slasher types with no real substance; the only characterisation afforded them is their keenness to get laid. This is surprising given Smith’s penchant for creating usually quite three dimensional characters with pointed opinions and biting wit. When their lives are endangered however, we root for them on a purely human level and because their captors are utterly unreasonable and deluded by their beliefs. The scene in which one of the teens awakens from drug-induced unconsciousness, bound up in a cage and being wheeled into a fiery homosexual-condemning sermon conducted by the Fred Phelps-inspired Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), is expertly constructed, as queasy tension steadily smoulders towards bloody ignition. With surprising subtlety our attention is drawn to the figure standing under a white sheet in front of a huge cross. A little like that scene in Audition, we gradually realise that someone is under the sheet. Feebly struggling. Tension mounts as Cooper’s vitriolic sermon and hateful comments about homosexuality continue to spit forth, and the overwhelmingly troubling revelation of what’s under the sheet - a captive man accused of being gay, lashed to the cross with reams of plastic wrap - ends with a sickeningly brutal death. That this violent and despicable brand of homophobia still exists in the States adds to the impact Red State makes early on. This scene is unflinching in its intensity and demonstrates Smith’s astounding ability to create tension and get the pulse racing. Alas, this intensity soon abates and is distinctly lacking from the rest of the film, which unfolds as a darkly comic siege narrative heavily inspired by Waco. The self-righteous fundamentalists eventually engage in a violent shoot out with ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agents led by John Goodman.



Tension is initially generated by the congregation’s deluded self-righteousness and the way in which Abin Cooper whips them into a worrying frenzy with his onslaught of anti-gay bile, ‘supported’ by quotes from the good book. However, proceedings soon run out of steam and Red State becomes rather muddled and uneven. As the siege continues, the feeling that it is completely futile becomes overwhelming. By peopling his story with unsavoury characters we just can’t relate to, perhaps what Smith is saying is that society has become so distorted by extremism and corruption, that it is best to just detach yourself from it. The state cops are painted in the same unflattering light as the cult, and Smith touches on how religion and politics are still intertwined in contemporary US society, but doesn’t really explore this concept in much depth. In the end, the film exhibits a rather nihilistic outlook, as various protagonists are killed; though Smith must be praised for refusing to conform to horror conventions. Mention must also be made of Michael Parks’ charismatic performance as Abin Cooper. Smith openly acknowledges that this character is based on the Westboro Baptist Church pastor, Fred Phelps; infamous for picketing the funerals of not only gay people, but also soldiers – who he claims were killed by God as judgement for the US’s acceptance of homosexuality. Cooper’s Phelps-like unreasonableness and belief that he is entitled to cleanse America of gays rightly gets the blood boiling. It’s too bad the bordering on slap-stick ending dilutes his power to unsettle.

While all the ingredients for a highly emotive and provocative story are evident in Red State, it simply doesn’t live up to its potential. Far from a bad film though, and never anything less than entertaining, it just lacks the powerful impact such heated subject matter warrants.

8 comments:

WriterME said...

Great review, and very much an echo of my own opinion of the film. I've done quite a bit of work on the American religious right, so was very interested to see how Smith had handled the topic.

Unfortunately, as you say, the film falls into two parts, and even the first fell short for me. By grounding his film in Westboro, I feel Smith missed out on the opportunity to create further horrors. We see Cooper preaching to his own family, all of whom are clearly framed as 'religious nuts', missing out on a large community of those within the religious right with equally extreme beliefs. I'm thinking here of documentaries such as Hell House and Jesus Camp; why is Cooper preaching to the converted of (literally) his own flock, rather than to a full church, a scenario which is perhaps more likely...

Anyway, sorry for the rant there, James; academic interests kicking in! *cough*

The Film Connoisseur said...

I personally really dug this film, the thing with this films talkative nature is that religion is talkative by nature as well. I mean, the ideas that are incrypted into peoples minds by religion get in there largely due to the preaching that goes on in church.

The preacher says something, the followers believe it. So I guess this is why we get characters going on and on, doing these long speeches. It's because religion works that way. But I enjoyed how Smith explores and exposes the way religion works in this film.

He uses these speeches effectively to expose just how nuts some of these teachings are, and then he even backs up the nuttiness with bible quotes!

Loved the film, agree about it not being perfect but it sure gets bonus points from me for having some cojones!

James Gracey said...

Don't get me wrong, I knew it would be talky! It's a Kevin Smith film after all. I just found it very disappointing given Smith's strong remarks about religion in Dogma and the utterly intense opening. I still enjoyed it, but it was very uneven. I respect Smith for making it, especially after all the trouble he encountered trying to get it distributed. I just thought/hoped I would have found it more affecting given the strong subject matter. Then again, as you say, maybe the point was to portray this extreme form of religion as ultimately redundant. We kill ourselves over religion and politics everyday around the world. And for what? The actions in Red State all came across as futile, especially the siege scenes, with most of the cast getting bumped off. Ordinarily I would have thought this was great - nihilistic and daring - but in the context of Red State, with so many unsympathetic characters, I just thought 'meh.'

Jon T said...

It's a shame Smith doesn't follow his criticisms of fundamentalism through and opts for the nihilism angle instead. Christopher Sharrett said about the apocalyptic horror film that it 'momentarily inoculates the spectator with criticisms of a failing dominant order, but then reneges on this criticism by denying that there is any worth in carrying this critical process through to a conclusion'. This certainly seems to be the case here.

James Gracey said...

That's a really interesting and valid point Christopher Sharrett makes, Jon. Thanks for sharing that. And I completely agree. Apparently a more fitting (though still quite absurd) ending couldn't be filmed because of the small budget. It depicted The Rapture, and before the Horsemen of the Apocalypse make their entrance, all the characters explode. Actually, I don't like that either. I'm not sure how Smith could have ended Red State, but its actual ending is a bitter disappointment to me. I really hoped for a better film. I didn't hate the film, it just made me feel very, for want of a better word, 'meh.'

James Gracey said...

Apologies, Madelon. Your comment somehow ended up in the spam box - no idea how that happened! Your rants are ALWAYS welcome here. It's funny because when I saw Red State I thought of the likes of Hell House and Jesus Camp (which I haven't seen but am aware of). I thought of your work on live horror exhibitions - like the hell houses used by certain fundamentalist groups to 'scare' their young into toing the line - and really must make more of an effort to obtain Hell House. I've a few ideas about christian horror I'd like to flesh out as an essay.
Hope you're well!

Cody said...

Completely agree. Michael Parks was insanely frightening and the one scene with Marc Blucas really got to me - also I always love seeing John Goodman, though he was looking super rough here. There was a lot that happened that surprised and even shocked me, but it just felt so haphazard and could have been so much more. And the ending bugged me on a monumental level.

James Gracey said...

Yeah, that seems to be the general feeling about this film, Cody. That it becomes so haphazard and unfocused towards the end really lets it down. Such a shame - this could have been a really powerful film.