Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Red State

Red State (2011)
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. 


  1. I at first HATED the ending. It just seemed like way too much of a contrived coincidence to even be considered a legitimate plot point. It's like, "Oh, yeah, this group of good-hearted kids on an eco-co-op, who have never been mentioned in the movie before this epilogue, got fed up with being harassed by those religious dudes (whose harassment of those kids has also never been mentioned before) and just happened to come across an old fire horn being auctioned off by the fire department and--conveniently being versed enough in scripture to remember a passage from Revelations, even if they're not religious themselves--decided to mess with those guys at the exact moment that it proved to be a critical plot point." It seemed more like an incidental, ridiculous side-story Jay would tell Silent Bob than something that should actually be used to resolve a movie.

    But Dan pointed out that it was supposed to be a Deus Ex Machina, and maybe was intended to convey that God works in mysterious ways, even if the ways he chooses seem to point the finger away from divinity. It's like, maybe the fact that it wasn't the rapture and was a completely secular intervention, seemingly shifting the answer away from God, actually shifts it towards God in a larger sense, because of its absurdity in the context of secular coincidence. Which made me hate the ending less. So that's the explanation I now choose to go with. Which maybe says a lot about how we choose to perceive God/the world/the nature of existence: whichever explanation makes us hate the place and its turns of events less.

  2. This would make a great double feature HIGHER GROUND, 2011's other very interesting movie about a small, tight knit religious community. Both seem to express what you might call an ambivalent view of religion, but HIGHER GROUND's take is more empathetic and humanistic, whereas RED STATE is all nihilism and misanthropy (interesting, coming from a filmmaker who previously described himself as a devout Catholic).

    I like RED STATE the more I think about it, and after the debacle that was COP OUT had me convinced that Smith was incapable of succeeding outside his comfort zone, he really impressed with his command of tone and suspense here. Still, I wish the execution had been a little stronger. It's a very ambitious film, but there's a few too many little problems that keep it from achieving those ambitions.

    For instance, Smith pulls one of my all-time favorite horror movie fake outs, the one where you trick the audience into thinking someone is the main character (in this case, the shaggy haired brunette kid), only to abruptly kill them off halfway through the film. That should have been a great "OH SHIT!" sort of moment, but Smith stages it in an awkward, unclear way (if I recall correctly, it's not even 100% clear that the kid is dead except that he never shows up again) and really diminishes the impact. There's a few too many mishandled moments like that, but I think the good stuff outweighs the bad.

    It's a shame that Smith claims he's retiring from film making soon, because I'd honestly love to see him try another film along these lines some time.

  3. I can see why people would hate the ending, especially since it seems to suddenly punk out of a legitimately crazy twist. But I actually really dug it. I like that it lets you sort of soak in the implications of "holy shit, its actually the fucking rapture!" for a good few minutes. This way, they get to go for the shock without actually having to go through with it (as I said, I don't think having it end on the actual rapture would have made sense based on the film's themes). Second, I think the cut away is brilliantly handled. Right as it seems like shit's about to get real, it suddenly cuts away to a very calm scene and leaves you floundering to figure out what happened. It throws you off more effectively and more satisfyingly than lots of the film's suddenly left turns. And finally, I like the dark humor of it all -- I was willing to buy it was just a hilariously mundane explanation that against all odds came at the exact right time. And Goodman's line about "subduing him with a head-butt" is infinitely more satisfying and well-delivered than actually seeing it would have been.

    I think Dan's right that there's some possibility that the helpfully-timed plot device might suggest God's hand doing its whole mysterious ways thing. But I also like that if that's the intention, the film is uncharacteristically restrained about pointing it out. Whether or not it was his intention, it nicely demonstrates how Christians could keep believing in spite of all the horror AND how silly their explanation would seem to atheists. Ultimately, though, the film isn't really about religion as much as culture, so I'm glad it stayed away from much philosophizing about God and and he might or might not want.

    Like you, the further I get away from this one, the more I admire it. I don't necessarily LIKE it, but I think its actually one of the more interesting, daring, and unique films I've seen in a long time. Flawed, sure, but I can pretty easily overlook the flaws for something special. I think I've enjoyed all of Smith's films (even COP OUT, kinda, in a forgettable way) but I had no idea he still had this kind of fierceness in him. Here's hoping he's as big a liar as I think he is, and that his "retirement" will mean about as much as Jay-Z's (and the whole incident will make a hilarious 40-minute story on "Evening 7: Kevin's Dead")

  4. Re: The ending, I agree with Joe that what is good about it is how it could go either. I think there's a "God works in mysterious ways" implication to it, with a crazy coincidence preventing further bloodshed. But it could also just as easily be read as nihilistic: stupid, blind luck was the only thing standing between them and an even worse massacre. Like all things religion, it's unprovable either way, and so I think it fits perfectly.

    Also, I could see an ending with the actual rapture happening working. It would have been fucking crazy and entertaining in and of itself, but if it showed god smiting the church members along with the agents, I think it still might have fit the movie's themes (in that all these people are fucked up and wrong).

  5. Well, here's why I think the deus ex machina (in this movie, and kind of the concept in general) irks me: I don't mind it when something crazy and coincidental happens that statistically, is really unlikely to have happened at exactly that moment, but in some beautiful, faux-concerted act of randomness, completely changes things and/or saves the day. If. IF. it is set up beforehand, even in the slightest, most off-handed way. As opposed to what they did in RED STATE.

    I wouldn't even mind it so much if, say, a group of people passing along on the highway came through at the last minute and did something crazy and game-changing, because the movie is presumably told from the characters' perspectives, and they were not aware of these people's existence until they arrived on the scene, but presumably could have existed anyway. In RED STATE, it seems like the church people knew about the eco-kids, but just chose not to reference them in any way until the end. I dunno. It maybe would've just sat better with me if they'd at least mentioned them before, instead of introducing the whole deus ex machina as an after-thought, because that's what it always feels like.

    If any of that made any sense. I could very well be griping without logic or reason.

  6. See, but if they had set it up earlier, or foreshadowed it in some way, then it would cease to be a deus ex machina. And I think the whole point is that it is SUPPOSED to be a completely out of the blue deus ex machina. It's not bad or lazy writing, it's a purposeful use of the convention that fits in thematically with the film.

  7. Well, maybe what I'm saying is that I don't particularly care for that convention :) But I should add, so I don't sound completely complain-y, I did like RED STATE a lot. For what it's worth. Even though I had mixed feelings about the ending, especially at first. But there are also things I liked about the yes, the "mixed" in mixed feelings. But I liked the movie overall, for all the reasons you two said.

  8. Yeah I'm pretty much good with the ending coming completely out of the blue. I think I wouldn't like it as much if there was any way to see it coming. And although I can see Dan's point that the actual rapture ending could be made to work, I sort of think that adding an actual supernatural element would distract from the film's main point (which has to do with people and what motivates them to hate each other, not with anything explicitly spiritual). So I actually think the ending is pretty well handled (although can certainly see how it could also be frustrating to some folks -- its sort of a matter of taste).

  9. By the way, I wanted to ask you kids if you were as annoyed by the portrayal of Stephen Root's gay character as I was. It's a pretty misanthropic film for all the characters, but it seems like he gets singled out for special punishment and borderline contempt. He spends the whole movie crying, fucking up, and then gets the most ignoble death. What's up with that?

  10. I honestly saw it long enough ago that I can't really remember the details of his character too well. Dan? (real time commenting FTW!)

  11. Well, Root's character wasn't the ONLY gay character: there was also, of course, the church's victim.

    But no, the depiction didn't bother me. Just because the character is gay doesn't mean that he's supposed to represent all gay people or something like that. I'd be more offended if he was, like, some sort of swishy stereotype or something. But bumbling asshole isn't really a gay stereotype, so I don't see how his behavior is any sort of commentary on homosexuality. The gay thing is really mainly a plot device to explain his erratic behavior, which is what accidentally sets off the shitstorm.

    Plus, as you note, no one really comes off well in the movie. Root may be a total dipshit, but he's not as detestable as many of the other characters.

    Also, Kevin Pollack's character gets a similarly ignoble (though way more awesome) abrupt death, so it's not like Smith was targeting gays or something.

  12. Dan: That sounds a lot like my argument in our debate on whether The Bellflower was misogynist or not (which you never turned into a blog post like I suggested. It would've been a great one!)