I was quite upset with Kevin Smith last July 4th. There I was, on my way to a preview screening of Red State, when I got an email telling me that the screening had been cancelled. Fair enough I thought, these things happen. But later that evening I read some stuff about why Smith had decided to cancel the press preview and instead offer places at a future screening to his fans via Twitter, mentioning something about them being more deserving than the ‘shit scribblers’.
Now that hurt. So when the opportunity came to attend a subsequent preview I was cautious to say the least, making sure that the Mrs was on standby with a 50 Hilarious Sporting Injuries DVD and a pot noodle, should I return home early as the result of another cancellation.
However, the film went ahead and after seeing it I can happily say that Kevin Smith (whether he likes it or not) is forgiven. Because as far as I'm concerned, if he keeps making films like this then he can call me and my ilk whatever he likes (within reason). Red State does have its flaws but it’s been a long time since I've sat in a cinema and watched something so compelling without having the foggiest about what will happen next or how things are ultimately going to turn out.
As the story gets underway we meet Travis (Michael Angarano) who, on his drive to school, observes members of the Five Points Church picketing the funeral of a gay teenager. After some admittedly awkward exposition whereby a school teacher explains just how bat shit crazy this group is, we then head into horror film territory with a scenario that seems familiar enough: horny teens and the price they’ll have to pay for not being able to keep their hormones in check. Travis and his two friends, Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), have arranged to have group sex with a woman in their neighbourhood. However, shortly after arriving at her trailer they are drugged and subsequently wake up to find themselves in the hands of the Five Points Church and their leader Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). It soon becomes apparent that Pastor Cooper and his congregation aren’t the types to leave the punishment of sinners to the Almighty.
One of the most impressive achievements in this first half hour or so is the way Smith ratchets up the intensity and tension as though he’s been directing thrillers all his creative life. In one extraordinary sequence in particular, Abin Cooper delivers a chilling yet mesmerising sermon to his congregation while a figure that is concealed by a white blanket occasionally stirs on a crucifix behind him. That this sermon lasts for about 10 minutes, the camera seldom straying from Parks, is a testament to the confidence Smith has in both his script and the actor delivering the lines. Parks, who many people will recognise as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw from Kill Bill, Death Proof etc, has rarely been better than he is here, his laid back tone of ‘lets be reasonable about this’ sincerity providing a chilling contrast with the religious insanity that falls so easily from his character’s lips. He also has this way of blinking slowly that in some awful way reveals the immutability of the Pastor’s religious mania, a characteristic he last utilized this well when conveying the ruthless misogyny of Esteban Vihaio, the Mexican pimp he played in Kill Bill Volume 2.
Cruel, taut and unsettling, this first act is dominated by the character of Cooper and it is only when the film moves into its second act and introduces Joe Keenan (John Goodman), an Agent with the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau), that you feel like you can take a deep breath and clear your lungs of some of the malignancy and oppression built up while inside the Five Points abode. Again we have some overdone exposition as Keenan receives a phone call from his superior and is told that he must investigate Cooper’s compound following reports of the possession of illegal firearms. How this investigation will play out given the horror film set-up established so far isn’t easy to predict but it is only when Jared attempts to escape that the film becomes something completely different. It does this, not in a slowly evolving transition from one thing into another but as suddenly and unexpectedly as, well, as a rifle shot ringing out across a still and silent morning landscape as a terrified teenager makes a run for it.
One of the objectives of film is to put us into a place or situation and make us experience those events as though we were there, not merely to observe but to empathize, take part and respond to what we’re seeing. As members of the church pursue Jared through the compound and then the sound of that single rifle shot is heard, there is one glorious moment when the characters on screen seem to share their bewilderment with the watching audience, a moment where none of us, the watchers and the watched, know any more or less than the other for just that single instant. It’s a rare thing to experience in cinema and isn’t something that can be sustained but this instance provides a brilliant undermining of the audience’s omnipotence as events veer off down a path that was completely unexpected.
Once Keenan and his men make it to the compound events conspire to create a scenario in which few characters emerge with any credit, as Smith presents a conflict that shows how easily men (and women) can become inured to the consequences of their own actions most readily when they perceive an offer of absolution from either God or the State. Memories of the Waco siege are evoked as Keenan’s superiors order him to take action that goes against every moral instinct the man has. Personal morality, the desire to do what is right for its own sake, is rendered impotent as Keenan, the one good man in the midst of this insanity, is left bewildered and floundering. He feels powerless and there’s a good chance you will too as you scour the screen for the character on whose shoulders the hopes for some sort of redemptive resolution to the story will rest.
But then just as the film is careening to an ending that threatens to deliver the bleakest finale since The Wild Bunch, we’re taken in another direction with a turn of events that finally enables us to recognise Red State as a Kevin Smith movie. It comes with a punchline that may well split audiences, reminiscent as it is of the rather abrupt conclusion to proceedings in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. I was so utterly thrown by what was going on that I half expected two characters from Smith’s Dogma to show up in the final act (you’ll understand who I mean if you see it), as I really couldn’t imagine what the alternative resolution would be. In deciding to implement such a huge shift in tone Smith takes a risk but somehow it’s one that pays off and for my money he succeeds where the Coens failed, conjuring up a finish that is satisfying and wryly amusing.
Up to that point you’d be hard pressed to recognise this as a Kevin Smith film at all, displaying as it does few of the familiar tropes of slacker culture and an obsession with the minutiae of the everyday that is evident in much of his other work. First it's a horror, then it’s a war film, then it’s a drama. However, it moves through the gears with such consummate ease that you never feel as though the whole thing is going to spiral out of control at any point, a confidence that is repaid when Smith takes the chequered flag with some style before whipping off his crash helmet and revealing it was him behind the wheel all along.
With Red State, Smith isn’t saying anything particularly original or profound about religion, tolerance or belief, but he does say it all with such hellfire and brimstone intensity that I was happy to watch and listen anyway. I’ll admit that much of my enjoyment was derived from how utterly this film confounded my expectations, so I’m not sure how well its narrative would stand up on a second viewing once its surprises and inventive twists have been revealed. But for now I’m just delighted that Smith has proven himself to be a filmmaker whose movies are more worthy of attention than his pronouncements on social networking sites and, with Red State, he has made his finest picture in years.
Expected rating: 6 out of 10
Red State is in UK cinemas now