Red State (2011)
Cynicism has been a part of Kevin Smith’s cinematic universe since those two misanthropic slackers graced our screens in his directorial debut Clerks. It is the way in which he presents the cynics of his films however that is so interesting, as they seem to manifest in appealing characters who transform it into a somewhat admirable trait. This is not the case when it comes to looking at his new film Red State. Perceived to be an attack on ultra-conservative, evangelical religious types, Red State is actually much more than that and rather presents a whole collective of people and institutions that are morally and ethically questionable. From Michael Parks’ eccentric but intoxicating fatherly Pastor Abin Cooper of the religious family cult central to the film to John Goodman’s authority questioning FBI agent Joseph Keenan, all characters are implemented in some sort of moral ambiguity.
The film opens with three high school friends who find a middle-aged woman (Melissa Leo) online that is willing to have sex with all of them at the same time. Being young, horny teenagers they leap at the opportunity, not paying attention to some of the more curious details, such as the woman’s residence existing in Cooper’s Dell: home to the Abin Cooper family cult, a direct correlation to the Westborough Baptist church and the Phelps family. Like flies to a web the boys are soon drugged and kidnapped and we later find are to be sacrificed as heathens in the eyes of this congregation as homosexual deviants. After some initial investigation from the local authorities, the FBI becomes involved in the hostage situation (of sorts) and is instructed to take action on this act of domestic terrorism when the cult brandishes a plethora of semi-automatic weapons to guard their religious fortress.
Ever since Dogma, it became obvious that Kevin Smith had some interest in the relationship between the political and the religious sectors and also the public and private operations of institutions, but always approaching it with a comedic touch (for the most part…). In Red State he takes to the soapbox once again, but this time approaches it with a tad more subtlety than previous encounters and it proves to be a mostly great success. Sure Smith provides some commentary, but rarely in Red State does it feel forced or juvenile, but rather manages to successfully blend humour, drama and thriller aspects with his social insight. He is not overtly attacking conservative values or institutions, but rather implicates all characters in the film as being flawed which works quite well at placing Smith at a distance from the film, a problem that he has often been guilty of. Apart from a rather extended sequence of cult members firing their semi-automatic weapons out of their fortress (which borders on farce), the film balances a fairly unique approach to the subject matter and genre concerns.
Smith himself has constantly commented on his lack of ability, particularly as a visual director. He is a screenwriter first and foremost, with the directing stuff coming a bit later. As his career went on it seemed that he began to refine his visual skills and by Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back he had transformed himself into a quietly competent director, able to handle a variety of different styles and sequences. However, his writing ability began to suffer in the process; almost as a trade off. Red State however seems to be perhaps the best meeting of his writing abilities and visual style since Clerks (which isn’t very striking visually, but matches the tone of the film perfectly). There are sequences in Red State that are incredibly well realised and effective, particularly a scene in which one of the teenage boys attempts to escape from the house whilst being chased by a few members of the family. Smith shoots the sequence from a variety of angles and edits it in a way that is intense, visceral and confusing, giving the audience a very accurate emotional experience of the attempted escape. There are many others of course, in which Smith actually shows some confidence behind the camera. Part of me attributes this to Smith’s evolving optical skills, but part of me also contributes this to the developments in digital video technology, which Red State unabashedly embraces. There is some overuse of the steady cam in the film however; for the most part Smith has proven that he can successfully convert strong written material into an appropriately filmed realisation.
As previously mentioned, all the characters in Red State seem to be flawed one way or another, which is perhaps the greatest strength of the film. This cynic depiction of all characters in the film is an interesting one to say the least, as Smith never allows the audience to latch itself to any particular character. Perhaps he is stating that the state of US politics and society has trailed so far from its trajectory that everyone is wrong and morally bankrupt. The law is depicted as cold and sterile, unwilling to factor basic humanity into their decision-making. FBI agent Joseph Keenan, may have some reservations about the decisions of his superiors, but in the end he obeys their orders even against his own wishes. Abin Cooper and his merry band of religious extremists wallow in the dark recesses of fear and hatred, discontent with the state of their nation, both attempting to hide from it and re-invent it as they see fit. The three boys that are captured present a sector of the public that is corrupted by a culture of hedonism, on the hunt for the next quick fix, aided and abetted by corrupted social systems.
It may seem by the tone of this review that Red State isn’t a fun film. It certainly is, and maintains some of Smith’s older sensibilities resulting in a great deal of humour being found in the calamity. At the heart of it Kevin Smith is still a slacker, just one with a career, a vision and the necessary means to accomplish it now. After toiling in the studio system with lacklustre results, it is refreshing to see that a director can create a film on his own terms and rise to the occasion. Before the release of Red State I didn’t blink an eyelid at the news of Kevin Smith’s retirement. After seeing this film however I am somewhat saddened that it will be coming to an end soon. It may not be a phoenix rising from the ashes, but Red State is a great accomplishment that utilises a magnificent approach to film making and distribution and is perhaps Kevin Smith’s best film since Clerks.