If you’d told me last year that Kevin Smith wrote and directed Red State, I’d have slapped your dog, called you a dirty lying whore, and taken a dump in the back seat of your car, or I possibly would have expressed my disbelief in a civil manner. I’ve never been good with hypotheticals. At any rate, many will compare the satiric thriller to Quentin Tarantino’s work, what with it stringing together a series of conversational set pieces, but this is all Smith, just a sombre, more mature Smith.
Consider the way the movie begins. We get the typical Smith opening with casual folk shooting the poop while doing something else, whether it be driving, teaching, eating, suffering through push-ups, or, in this case, all of the above. The words are his, as indicated by the social commentary inserted between profanities (or does it go the other way around?). What differs is the rhythm, which, for once, makes full use of the cinematic medium, changing environments mid-conversation so as to move the story forward while setting up its themes. We’re a far cry from two guys leaning against a flat surface like they inhabit a comic strip panel.
I’ve long argued that Smith made a better screenwriter than director. Red State proves me wrong. I love the way it jumps from genre to genre, subverting our expectations by adopting new filmmaking conventions. Horror, suspense, comedy: the man can do it all apparently, in the same movie no less. However, to call the plot frenetic would be to ignore how seamlessly he meshes these different styles, careful to maintain a consistent tone throughout.
The first act plays like a slasher in the style of Hostel (2005) or the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). It follows three teenage boys as they fall prey to the Five Points Church, a religious sect not unlike Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Convention, except its members kidnap and torture homosexuals instead of making asses of themselves at their funerals. Though their batty rants go on far too long, Michael Parks and Melissa Leo prove terrifying as Pastor Cooper and his daughter Sarah, emphasizing the characters’ self-righteousness instead of their violence.
The hate mongers soon find themselves in a Mexican standoff against the ATF, and Red State turns into a modern pulp thriller with characters from all sides following separate agendas. Every subplot held my interest, but it’s the overall sense of chaos that gripped me as key players shift allegiances in between gunshots and get their heads blown off before completing their arc. Grounding the whole thing is John Goodman’s understated performance (at least when compared to Parks’) as squad leader Joseph Keenan, who receives disturbing orders from up top and struggles with their implications.
To say anything about the final act or its absurdity would, I think, constitute a spoiler. I’ll reveal this much: you won’t see it coming. I laughed at first because I was confused and perhaps a bit uncomfortable. Then I laughed because it’s genuinely funny, hitting all the right notes and taking no prisoners in its mockery. Some may argue that Smith cheats us out of a high-octane climax, but I prefer my social satires to end with a punch line rather than bloody melodrama.
Like Dogma (1999) before it, Red State argues that the devil hides in zealotry, not doubt, and that the nation could do with a little more scepticism. The end credits divide the cast into three categories: sex, religion, and politics. Each group decides the fate of one of the teenagers captured by the Five Points Church, but the film is less concerned with contemporary American doctrines than with the sense of entitlement they seem to generate.
Take, for example, the character of Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root), who endangers countless lives to conceal his homosexuality. His actions echo a culture in which public servants routinely promote intolerance in the hopes of hiding their indiscretions. Better yet, consider the final line of Red State, shouted in response to a bigot’s tired old song. Don’t you wish you could scream the same thing at every hate-filled pundit and politician dominating our media?