I Watched Kevin Smith’s Red State

18 Sep
Red State theatrical poster

Yes, THAT Kevin Smith.

Apparently, a double-feature out with the wife yesterday wasn’t enough movie-time for us. I learned that a double feature like Straw Dogs (2011) and The Debt isn’t the best way to walk away feeling entertained. Don’t get me wrong: both films are very good, well constructed and paced, with characters and stories that I could buy into. BUT. Both are dark movies, with dark subject matter that feels almost too revealing, too honest about the horror that people confront in the world and in themselves. Both films depict violations that are borderline traumatizing: I recommend you see them with someone you trust (you don’t want to see them alone), but no matter what, do NOT expect to get laid after watching them. (Trust me: after you see them, you’ll know why…) They are pretty great movies that are terrible date movies.

So we leave the theater, do some shopping, and think: we need some entertainment! We decide to sit on the couch and watch another movie: oh, look, we can watch Red State!

My wife and I are both big Kevin Smith fans. Not a week goes by without one of us quoting some Zack and Miri or Clerks II. I’ve read most of Smith’s comics (see? I can fit comics into this post somehow). My wife religiously listens to Smith’s SModcasts and loves to share all of Smith’s semi-regular appearances on KROQ’s Kevin & Bean show with me. We are proud members of the Kevin Smith Generation: we love pop culture that reflects our appreciation of pop culture.

Now, I knew that Red State was hyped as not being a “typical” Kevin Smith film. For one, it’s a horror film from a comedy filmmaker; two, it was funded and distributed outside normal Hollywood channels. So we’d have to go out of our way to watch it – in our case, we ordered it on Pay-Per-View. I can say that this was very much worth the effort and money (ten bucks for two of us to watch a new film in the comfort of our home? Sold!).

It’s crystal-clear that this film is very heavily inspired by the antics of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and their protests. This is a tiny hate group that gets a lot of national media attention by using their free-speech rights to trample the dignity of people who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the rights and freedom of others (sounds kind of like the sacrifice that some other guy made a while back, at least according to Christians… oh, what was his name…?). Oh, and they also tried to protest Comic-Con, with hilarious results.

Kevin Smith protesting

If something bothers you, why not spend your time making a sign a waving it around in public for hours? That'll make your life much better.

It’s not exactly a bold stance to say that one doesn’t like the WBC. Even other hate groups like neo-Nazis have publicly distanced themselves from the WBC’s position (I’m not going to post links for this, because hate groups tend to have untrustworthy websites, for various/obvious reasons). For Smith, this film is personal: he has a gay brother, and Smith is clearly disgusted by the fact that his brother has to live in a world where his very existence is hated. So, he did what anyone who loves and supports another person should do: he devoted his time and talents to fight back. And the end result is a film that shows the kind of evil that can result from one’s commitment to hatred and faith without reason: a film in which a murderous family congregation lures victims to their deaths – deaths which the cult members believe are deserved because the victims’ behavior is against their personal belief system, a faith rooted in hatred for those who are Different.

Faith is, after all, belief without evidence. A lot of people believe that a god (or gods) beyond our imagination created everything and are actively involved in human affairs. As long as human beings have tried to explain the world around them, their curiosity and imagination generated these beliefs. And as an evolutionary strategy, this worked: it helped create civilization and make tribes and communities stronger:

(NSFW audio)

Even today, as more and more of the universe is being examined and explained by people who can understand and prove such things, there are millions of people who prefer to not even listen to anything that challenges their worldview. When one’s perspective comes from an isolated existence, or an isolated mind, ignorance and hate can easily take hold and flourish.

But Red State‘s story is not just about the non-Westboro Baptist Church cult called “Five Points” (the dialogue even says they’re not the WBC! Guess they can’t sue now…): it’s about the ATF in a post-Waco world; it’s about the federal government’s actions in a post-PATRIOT Act world; it’s about the role of faith and belief and how it can be perverted to turn human beings into monsters (and, in a hilarious twist near the end, believers into suckers). I went into the film expecting a cheap, fun slasher horror film; but I got much more, and that’s what elevates this unusual film above the typical horror shit that gets shoveled into theaters by Hollywood.

The quality of the overall cast was surprisingly good. Smith’s casts have generally gotten stronger with each of his films, but considering that this was a quick, down-and-dirty digital production (a huge difference from Smith’s early films, which tended to have weeks of rehearsals), I didn’t know what to expect, and I ended up impressed. The cast’s work feels spontaneous and realistic, and it’s nice to see Smith trust his actors to do their best and make it work.

Red State Caleb poster

Ralph Garman as cult member Caleb

Michael Parks is on fire as Abin Cooper, the clan leader: a man who believes everything he says, and yet knows just what to say to get what he wants. He is smart, manipulative and charismatic: a Devil walking the Earth who believes his own lies about the world.

But for me, the most interesting character is John Goodman’s ATF agent Joseph Keenan: a man who wants to do the right thing, but will still follow orders and commit evil to protect himself and his family. Goodman makes the most of his material, with acting that shows the conflict within his character and the many hard choices he has to make.

Red State does not follow a typical Hollywood three-act structure: we have several minutes of set-up that puts three boys in harms’ way, and then we’re off to the races with this crazy cult. To a film critic, the movie can seem preachy – because, right near the beginning, we get a really long sermon by our evil pastor – but in this case, I’d argue that the choice is appropriate, and it works. Unlike a slow-burn like Straw Dogs, Red State wants to drop you right in the middle of the cult’s insanity as soon as possible. Actually, “insanity” is the wrong word: the “Five Points” congregation/family seems to know exactly what it’s doing, and why. It happily commits Evil in the name of Good.

Like all of Smith’s films, Red State is far from perfect on a technical level. There are some camera angles and editing choices that made me cringe a bit, and there are some scenes (like the massive machine-gun firefights) where it’s hard to tell where all of the characters are. But the storytelling itself is clear, the characters and their motivations are believable, and the resolution is satisfying in an unexpected way. Even without knowing Smith’s intentions and motivations, the film works on its own and is even worth watching more than once (and in the ever-increasingly crowded world of entertainment, in which Everything is available Forever and is competing with Everything Else for our attention, that’s saying something).

Kevin Smith has built a career on his brilliant storytelling and personality. Even when his filmmaking skills were sub-par (Clerks is the most amateurish-looking among my favorite films, by far), he’s given us material that deserves our attention. His countless college tours, comics-convention panels, and Evening with Kevin Smith DVDs have given the Geek Generation our own George Carlin: part of an artform’s evolution, whether comics or film or whatever, involves the exploration of untouched or forbidden topics, or of new and different approaches. But it also means better Dick Jokes. And Smith’s stories, whether on stage, in comics, or in his films, are presented in a brutally honest fashion that, like all great art, transforms its audiences into better, more thoughtful, and more open-minded and tolerant people. Who like Dick Jokes.

Red State doesn’t have a lot of dick jokes. But, like all of Smith’s work, it is a must-see.

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2 Responses to “I Watched Kevin Smith’s Red State”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Foo Fighters Counter-Protest WBC « All Day Comics - September 19, 2011

    […] Westboro Baptist Church (who were not the back guys in Red State, wink wink) announced a protest of a Foo Fighters show in Kansas City, MO. So the Foo Fighters […]

  2. ALL WEEK: The Week’s Most Popular Stories « All Day Comics - September 25, 2011

    […] 12. Kevin Smith’s Red State review […]

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