Red State (2011,USA)
Director: Kevin Smith Starring: John Goodman, Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Ronnie Connell, Kaylee Defer
When I first saw Clerks, many moons ago now, I thought Kevin Smith was some kind of genius. It probably helped that his debut feature summed up the existential misery of working in a shop, combining it with beautifully pitched gags at the expense of the idiosyncracies of customers but his next film, Mallrats, was still a pretty enjoyable if a little patchy affair. After that though, he really seemed to go off the boil in my opinion, making a string of increasingly lacklustre and often times seriously unfunny comedies. Red State represents something of a change of direction for the cult favourite though as Smith has ditched the comedy in favour of something altogether more sinister.
Three high school boys (thanks to the wonder of the internet) head off to a remote trailer park on the promise of a sordid sexual encounter at the hands of an insatiable older woman. When they get there however they discover, to their horror, that the liaison is nothing more than a ruse and they find themselves on the wrong side of evangelical fundamentalist Christian Abin Cooper (Parks) and his sinister family who have sworn to rid America of vile sinners. And that’s as much as I really want to give away here.
Although it may sound like Red State has a lot in common with the Hostel movies, it really is in a different class, far superior in terms of tension than those films and with more emphasis on the anticipation of violence than the graphic “torture porn” depiction of it. Perhaps this will disappoint horror fans but to be honest what the film lacks in gore (there are some startling moments scattered throughout but nothing too devestating) it more than makes up for with the fact that it really isn’t that far fetched.
Cooper’s “Five Points Trinity” Church is not a million miles away from the kind of survivalist inflected, narrow minded, hate driven fundamentalists that crop up every so often around the world, although particularly in the good old US of A. Parks’ performance as the demented patriarch of the Five Points Trinity is simply superb. He switches between fire and brimstone evangelist, gentle grandfather and frothing at the mouth psycho with apparent ease and is as convincing as he is sinister. I had no trouble accepting the hold he had over the members of his Five Points family, spurring them on to do devilish deeds with his hate filled rhetoric and reassuring the doubters among his flock with equally vehement, if more gently delivered, religious dogma. It really is Parks’ film with none of the cast, not even John Goodman (although he does do a decent enough job with what he has to play with) being able to touch his screen stealing performance.
Thematically it’s really all about the power of hatred and those who harness it to their own ends and how dangerous it can be when it’s backed up with fanatical belief in a supporting ideology. If Dogma was Smith’s religious movie this is his atheist one, basically placing the blame for a lot of the hatred in society at the feet of religious ideologues, a philosophy I find it difficult to entirely disagree with. The dogma may differ but the end result is the same. It sneaks into political territory and flirts a little with a comment on the interpretation of the US constitution but this doesn’t amount to much and is probably for the best, at least when it comes to audiences on this side of the Atlantic who most likely couldn’t give a hoot about the US constitution. That notwithstanding there are certainly plenty of parallels here with the Westboro Baptists at Waco and Smith is as unforgiving of those the government sends to intervene as he is of the heavily armed religious nutjobs. If he takes a definite viewpoint at all it’s that people of all faiths, creeds, colours and denominations have the capacity for unbridled cruelty.
The most pleasing thing about this film is that it was clearly Smith’s opportunity to dig himself out of the rut of asinine comedies that he has become so well known for and in this respect it is broadly successful. There are still the occasional lines of dialogue that waste no time in reminding you who has written and directed the film, a phenomenon that increases in intensity the closer you get to the ending, an ending which I found a little bit weak to be honest, at least compared with the rest of the film. It did wildly exceed my expectations though (even if my expectations were sub-basement level, even deeper than the hog tied hostages) and proved to be a satisfying horror/thriller affair. While Smith no doubt has enough die hard fans that he could enjoy moderate success from anything he makes I’m glad to see him finally making the effort to do more than simply appease the fanboys and on the strength of Red State, it’s something that he should do more often.