It can be a mixed bag when a “genre” director makes a foray into a category that he/she has never tried before. For example, no one is stopping Rob Zombie from making a romantic comedy, but one has to wonder what the success of that film would look like. Heck, I even wonder what the title would look like – ‘The Devil’s Roses’? ‘House of 1,000 Delightful Misunderstandings’?
There was a time, exactly a decade ago, when Kevin Smith had only ever made “Kevin Smith-style comedy” movies. It was with great intrigue at the time, then, that he took a very direct and intentional tonal shift. The man best known to his fans as “Silent Bob” effectively turned things on its ear with the release of ‘Red State,’ a horror film with serious undertones of social commentary.
Smith is known to both casual movie-goers and his legions of hard-core fans as the comedic mastermind behind cult classics like ‘Clerks,’ ‘Chasing Amy,’ ‘Dogma,’ and ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.’ But ‘Red State’ sees Smith take things in a whole new direction, something that can most closely be approximated to the horror genre. By Smith’s own admission, the film isn’t exactly a horror flick, but it doesn’t really have any other genre to fall into; as he stated during the live Q&A session after the advance filming that I had the pleasure of attending a decade ago, “there is no ‘political-social commentary’ genre… there are things that happen in the movie that are horrific, so I decided to call it a horror film.”
He is most definitely correct: there are quite horrific moments in the story, enough so that I would agree with him in his categorization of the movie. In ‘Red State,’ a group of three teenagers begin the story by agreeing to meet up for a group-sex encounter with an older woman whom they found online. In typical teenage fashion, they don’t do much research (or thinking in general), and the scenario turns out to be a trap concocted by a radical, pseudo-religious, cult-like group, fashioned in this story to appear strikingly similar to the Westboro Baptist Church.
Things up to this point in the story could pass for that “typical Kevin Smith movie,” with sex jokes, witty banter, and the like, but things soon take a turn for the seriously-gruesome. The group’s members, led by their fanatical pastor Abin Cooper (played by Michael Parks in typically-awesome Parks-ian fashion), have some truly terrible things planned for the boys, and the unintentional intervention of the local bumbling law enforcement leads to a much bigger confrontation: the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), who have been watching the “church” for some time, show up in full government force, and the standoff at the church’s not-surprisingly-well-fortified compound gets bloody quickly. People die, political rhetoric is spouted in mass amounts on both sides, and the end takes several intriguing turns before settling on the final word via one of Smith’s always-well-worded closing statements.
Make no mistake: Smith is a storyteller of the highest degree. His films often end up projecting his opinions rather bluntly upon the viewer, and ‘Red State’ is definitely no exception. Regardless of whether you agree with every single thing (he and) his characters say, Smith crafts captivating tales, and this film definitely builds on that legacy. Part action, part drama, part violence, and part commentary, the sum of these parts is an entertaining whole – if you can see the whole through any possible disagreement you may have with the content itself.
An absolutely stellar cast utilizes great acting to help offset the fact that it feels like things escalate far too quickly in this tale. For this religious group to be a “known terrorist cell” (paraphrasing) by the government and still allow the group to get to the point where they can easily abduct and kill seemingly whenever they please… it just didn’t sit well with me. As I mentioned, the cast is an eclectic who’s-who of celebrities: joining Parks is Oscar winner Melissa Leo as a member of the church, the always-entertaining John Goodman and Kevin Pollack as ATF agents, and the sorely-underutilized Stephen Root as a local incompetent Sherriff.
The plot of the film is mostly solid and it seems fairly grounded in reality, at least in terms of something that “could happen” in today’s society. The internal logic of the film is largely pushed by the twisted logic of the cult members, so things do make sense, even if it seems backwards at times. The climactic final scene (leading up to a post-event conclusion presented as a recap in an ATF inquiry) is incredibly intriguing, and I had the opportunity to ask Smith directly about it during the post-showing interview session; I won’t spoil anything for you here, but just know it is easily one of the most polarizing aspects of the film.
Being Smith’s first attempt at a horror-like film, he leaned heavily on his existing knowledge of how to tell an effective story, and the result is moderately successful. There is suspense, blood, and gore when there needs to be, but on the whole, the movie feels like it runs a bit long; chalk this up to the “rhetoric” mode Smith puts some characters in while they are delivering his opinions via the scripted word. Parks alone spends nearly 20 minutes of an early expository scene simply standing at the pulpit while spouting his fanaticism – some viewers, especially those drawn in by the promise of a “horror” film, may not take kindly to these kind of scenes.
During the post-screening interview session back in the day, I asked Smith what he hopes the world will remember of his film’s religious message (even some of his other films, though comedies, also dealt with religious aspects and commentary). Without missing a beat, he responded confidently with “Don’t fear God, fear His followers.” ‘Red State’ certainly embodies that message, and ultimately it’s up to the individual viewer if you can agree enough with Smith’s opinions to see that message presented effectively in this film.