Kevin Smith’s ambition outreaches his talent in Red State, a horror thriller with ultra-fanatical religion in its cross hairs, yet firing blanks in its commentary.
Smith has never been one to run away from taboo issues, with religion in particular a familiar subject. His controversial 1998 film Dogma successfully blended Smith’s trademark toilet humour with a lampooning/questioning/exploration of the Catholic religion, and still stands as one of the great religious satires.
However, wisdom has not grown with Smith’s age, and while there are moments in Red State which can be described as brilliant, to many poor filmmaking choices and disingenuous commentary on religion stun Red State from becoming the classic it could have been.
What is certain is that the first 30 minutes of Red State is the best work Smith has ever done. It starts off in typical manner, with a group of horny Texas teenagers (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) travelling to a caravan park for a night of gangbang action with a willing internet hook up (Melissa Leo).
Unbeknownst to them is that they are flies in a spiders web woven by the Trinity Church, an extreme religious cult who not only preach the word of a God of hope and fear, but also “send the sinners straight to Hell” through cold blooded murder.
Drugged, bound and scarred witless, the teen trio find themselves centre stage in a fiery sermon, delivered by cult leader Pastor Abin Cooper, played by a frightening and utterly convincing Michael Parks, who preaches from the pulpit through sneers, song, and even a little two-step shuffle.
When the authorities come on the scene Red State quickly loses its momentum and tension as it disintegrates into a non-stop, Waco style shoot out between the Trinity Church and the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) led by Agent Keenan, a good guy placed in a bad situation and played very well by John Goodman.
With the ATF given orders to kill everyone in order to avoid a publicity disaster (a ridiculous plot point), the bullets fly fast, bodies drop like flies and the pace languishes as Smith fails to find his feet as an action director. The other troubling aspect of having to give sympathy to the same characters we have been groomed to despise is confusing, to say the least.
Smith found inspiration for the Trinity Church from the exploits of the Phelps family, a very small religious group who hold strong anti-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-government....ok, let’s just say they hate everything.
Smith wisely and accurately separates the Trinity clan from any mainstream religious or political organisation, often by trickling little bits of trivia in the dialogue. At one point it is mentioned that they travelled to Rome to protest the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Evangelicals are mocked as gutless and godless. Hell, even the Phelps themselves are mentioned only as “irritants” when compared to the Trinity’s holy killers (no doubt a move by Smith to avoid litigation).
While Red State is unlike anything Smith has done before, what hasn’t changed is Smith’s penchant for sensationalism in the face of good storytelling and astute social commentary, based in this case on straw-men and stereotype.
The Phelps are real, but they are the exception to the Christian rule, something which Smith seems to agree with. But his assertion that all people of faith are only one step away from drinking the Kool-Aid is dangerous and just plain false. Red State has its moments as a horror movie, yet as a commentary on religion it is an immature and depressing drag.