Dir. Kevin Smith
Starring John Goodman, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, various others
Most of my heroes are not the most technically gifted artists in their particular medium. I’m moderately appreciative of folks who can sing a huge range, or who can completely shred the guitar, or who can paint a picture that looks absolutely lifelike. That’s cool and all, but honestly not of much more interest to me than, say, the World’s best shot putter or the World’s most convincing ventriloquist. The point of art in my mind is not to master the technique, but to express something unique. Now, you need some technique to express anything. But an overemphasis on technique can be alienating, too. Technique is universal – voice is personal. And I’m in it for the voice, for the person on the other end of the line. I want my art to be something a computer could never have come up with. A computer can synthesize technique and write a pretty convincing concerto or pop song. It could probably write a pretty convincing AC/DC song. It can write things which are satisfying and predictable, but it can’t write things that are weird, that are raw, that are contradictory and misshapen. It could write a Zack Wylde solo, but never a Niel Young solo. It could not write a Tom Waits song. It could not make a David Lynch film. And it couldn’t write a Kevin Smith film.
I’m not trying to say that Smith is as masterful an artist in his medium as those other guys. His lack of technique often undermines his efforts and diminishes the effectiveness of his ideas. But you can always feel him under there, and he’s always up to something uniquely Kevin Smith. Always wrestling with his own conflicted and tortured notions of religion, sexuality, friendship, success. His buddy Ben Affleck has only made two films, and they’re both more accomplished in almost every way than any of Smith’s ten feature films. They’re better shot, better edited, more consistently acted, more realistically written, more entertaining. But they’re the work of someone who’s a good craftsman*. Smith’s films are the work of a truly unique person.
A big part of his uniqueness is that Smith has to be the most chronic oversharer in history. He can’t help himself. He absolutely has to blurt out every single thought that crosses through his mind every second he can get someone’s attention. Now, that can get extremely irritating and can lead him to say some unfortunate things. It can wind up in embarrassing debacles which end up overshadowing his art. But it also means that when he makes any film besides COP OUT he’s doing it because he’s got a bunch of stuff bouncing around his head that absolutely needs to get out. It doesn’t always happen eloquently, it doesn’t always fit together nicely, it doesn’t always add up to anything that might be called a conclusion. There is, though, a sort of charm to his complete lack of filter, his earnest compulsion to get all this stuff out into the world. It’s pretty rare to find an artist that eager to spill out the often humiliating contradictions of his thought process. If it’s technically primitive, it reflects the lack of calculation in his thought, too. He may never be a great filmmaker, but I suspect he’ll always be an interesting one, if you can set aside his various personal shenanigans and filmatically inarticulate style.
So when he makes a film like RED STATE, you gotta be a bit curious what he’s gonna do with it. He’s been selling it for ages as a horror film based on the Westboro Baptist Church (finally, the WBC has found someone who is exactly as shameless a spotlight whore as they are) and I honestly couldn’t imagine what the fuck it would be like. Actually, I did sort of assumed I knew what it would look like (all his other movies), I just couldn’t figure out how he was gonna get his usual jumbled ball of darkly prickly ideas jammed in there. Turns out he, like the movie itself, was selling a bait-and-switch. It’s not a horror movie, and its not about the WBC. But it also isn’t anything you could have expected from Smith, and I like that.
For one thing, it feels more like a horror movie than I would have ever guessed Smith was capable of. Yes, you still got all these characters speaking Smithese (which means they never fucking shut up) and --like all his films-- there’s a real wit in the dialogue, even if it’s a bit labored sometimes. It’s different, though, in that they inhabit a world he’s never explored before; it’s a grey, desolate place full of decay and despair. It’s nothing stylistically radical, and looks like any number of grim cheapie DTV survival horror flicks with its digital hand-held photography and muted gray palette. But placing Smith’s words in such a universe is a little shocking. When three horny high school kids banter about meeting up with a woman they found on the internet who wants to have sex with the three of them (at the same time!) – everything plays out exactly the way you’d expect from a Smith movie, until the exact minute things get really fucking serious. Suddenly the quips take on a new context – it’s the same writing but suddenly it has a nightmarish juxtaposition with horrific, unflinching brutality and a near-nihilistic despair.
Smith has always had a slightly darker side than people tend to remember (the necrophilia-induced shock of CLERKS and its bleak original ending, the sporadic bloody brutality of DOGMA) but its usually tempered by his cornball sentimentalism and his obvious fondness for his characters. Not here. This is a film with no heroes, no humanism, no hope. It’s a world filled with delusional, suicidal, vicious, selfish, loathsome human beings who are only too happy to turn on each other given an excuse to do so.
On one hand, we have the obvious villains of the movie, the Five Points Church led by Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper. They’re obsessed with the evils of homosexuality, and have been kidnapping and murdering gays in their fortified church compound (including the three kids the film begins with). There’s an obvious way to deal with these characters, and any other horror movie would just have given us a HILLS HAVE EYES cast of menacing redneck freaks. But Smith sadistically makes the Church Members the most appealing characters in the whole film.
Hollywood films are full of depraved religious psychos, from Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE PREACHER to Donald Pleasance in WILL PENNY and Jake Busey in CONTACT. Michael Parks plays it completely differently. You’re introduced to him from the perspective of kids tied up in a cage next to a shroud-covered body – you’re ready to hate and fear him, and then he comes across as nothing but warm and charming. With his feathered white hair, thick glasses, and working-man’s button-down shirt, he seems more like someone’s weathered, wily old grandpa than a murderous zealot. Michael Parks is absolutely fucking stunning in this role. He’s an actor who has been doing solid work forever, (and got a few showy parts recently as Sherrif McGraw and Estaban in the KILL BILLS), but I would never have guessed he could be this good. While those are colorful cartoons, this is a textured, nuanced performance which is all the more terrifying for how warm and real it seems. He’s a horrific monster, but he’s also someone’s dad, someone’s grandpa, and he cares deeply about them. He doesn’t shout, denounce, or even quote scripture – he coos, he jokes, he plays sweet little games with the kids, and he’s completely genuine. The families in his church are the same – they beam at the kids, laugh at the jokes, present an image of congenial warmth.
Then they pull the shroud of the body and shoot him point-blank in the head with a pistol.
At first, it’s seems like a dirty trick, a cheap way to shock you – and maybe it is, but then we get to the second, less obvious villains.
You see, by pure chance the local sheriff’s office (headed by closeted, self-hating gay Stephen Root, who’s introduced pulled over on the side of the road getting head from an anonymous stranger) has stumbled across the situation, and called in the ATF squad headed by what remains of John Goodman (which it turns out is mostly skin and acting chops). And suddenly we switch from a kidnapping/torture porn movie to a siege procedural film, as the ATF squad surrounds the house, the film’s perspective shifts to them, and a long shootout begins. Goodman, like Parks, seems like a nice guy, and Smith’s sardonic dialogue makes him all the more endearing. But when he gets a call from his superiors telling him that the media is far away and not to leave any embarrassing survivors, he unhappily but dutifully passes the orders to his men.
This is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Because, you see, we now have two villains in a horror film which should only have one. It almost lost me here, because who the fuck wants to root against the guys who are here to bust ass, save the kids, and kill the shit out of a bunch of murderous homophobe theist zombies? Part of the problem is that the siege aspect is not staged as well as the first half of the film, with Parks in the church. But the other half of the problem is that it’s obvious we should be siding with the FBI, but Smith sure isn’t making that easy. They’re not as bloodthirsty, but they’re exactly as callously murderous as the Church members (in fact, they end up with a higher body count of innocent civilians). But they’re the good guys. I mean, of course we should side with them. Right?
The answer is no, it turns out. Because what Smith has actually done is diabolically make a film which promises to confirm everything us nice, college-educated, godless elitist East Coast liberals fear about Middle America (the “Red State”) and then switches perspectives to show exactly what they fear in us. It’s a Left-wing paranoid fantasy about psychotic murderous religious zealots which suddenly turns into a Right-wing paranoid fantasy about amoral, dispassionately murderous government hit squads. And you’ll find yourself scratching your head and thinking the whole premise about the government hit squad is kinda ludicrous, that this doesn’t make sense, they wouldn’t just kill everyone. And you’re right, of course they wouldn’t. But the truth is that there is no Five Points Church either. The Westboro assholes are just calculating charlatans leeching a seedy living off of suing the people they offend, the nutters at Waco and Jonestown were a greater danger to themselves than anyone else. The whole thing is a fantasy. But you buy one fantasy way easier than the other.
And that’s the film’s real zinger. You’ve already taken the hook just by enjoying the excellent first half of the film, and now you have to admit your bias. Well thanks Kevin, now I feel like an asshole, but what the fuck is the point? The point, it turns out, comes in a surprisingly poetic little parable at the very end of the film.** Goodman survives, and, facing a panel of detached, jokey FBI superiors, tells them a story about two dogs, raises the same, which suddenly turned on each other one day. It’s America, duh. And if you think you’re not part of the problem, why does the cartoonish villainy of the Church seem more satisfying and cinematic than the cartoonish villainy of the ATF guys? We’re at each others’ throats “like we don’t know each other” in Goodman’s words. We buy into the idea that the other side is made up of monsters, but of course we’re all just people trying to do the right thing. Parks and Goodman’s affectionate portrayals of their deeply flawed characters are case in point. They’re both good people, in some respects, but their inability to see those aspects in each other has led them to a really ugly kind of evil. And as long as we’re looking at each other as irredeemable villains, it’s just going to get uglier and uglier. The film is called “Red State” not because it’s a depiction of a conservative-leaning state in Middle America, but because the American State itself is awash in hate and mistrust – exemplified by the way we so easily accept the stereotypical designation of “Red” and “Blue” cultures. It’s kind of brilliant, in an evil way.
It’s not a perfect film, obviously. Smith still lacks the discipline to avoid piling on awkward expository dialogue, and his editing is still sometimes weak. Despite his good intentions, I think its pretty obvious that Smith doesn’t buy his evil utilitarian government hit squad as much as he does his evil religious cult, and the film suffers somewhat from his unintentional favoritism. And for a film about evil homophobes, I think it sucks that the film’s only gay character is treated with nothing but contempt by the script and everyone he meets (SPOILER: his off-handed death while crying in his car strikes me as unappealingly mean-spirited even for this movie). Add to that the fact that the film stubbornly and intentionally denies you any kind of narrative satisfaction, and you have a film which is in some ways hard to really recommend to anyone. It’s ugly, awkward, unpleasant, and unsatisfying. But its also ballsy as hell, completely unique, and smattered with elements of real genius that only Kevin Smith could have imagined. He may never be the best director in the world, but as long as he’s so compulsively driven to get his thoughts out in the world, I’m always going to look forward to watching them
*by the way, apparently Affleck was so (correctly) impressed with RED STATE’S cast that he imported most of them (plus Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston) for his next film, a historical/action film about the Iranian hostage crisis called ARGO, which sounds pretty cool.
** Wikipedia says:
During various interactive Q&As for the film, Smith has stated that the original ending actually continued through with the trumpets signaling the Rapture. After Cooper tells Keenan to shoot him, Cooper's chest explodes, followed by the remaining family members' chests exploding one by one, and then the remaining agents' chests exploding one by one. During these deaths, the ground shakes and splits, and Keenan curls up on the ground and closes his eyes. When he opens his eyes he sees the last agent killed with a giant sword coming out of his chest, which is being wielded by an enormous armored angel. The angel looks at Keenan, puts a finger to his lips, and says "shhhhh". The angel then flies off into the sky, and as the angel banks out of the picture the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse descend.
That would have been pretty cool, but I’m actually glad Smith didn’t go through with it. Funny as it sounds, that’s kind of a cop-out ending (no pun or reference intended) which sort of confirms that Cooper is right (at least on some level) and doesn’t meaningfully address any of the issues the film raises. The final ending is odd and seems to retreat from the “holy shit” moment that precedes it, but I think ultimately has more to say about what we’re to make of all this.