The three teenage boys on their way to have sex with a woman one of them met online initially appear to be typical Kevin Smith characters. They are likeable, a bit dorky and joking about sex. However, in Red State their bravado and antics are offset by the presence of the Five Points Church, an ultra extremist, right-wing Christian group whose activities include picketing the funeral of a recently murdered homosexual classmate. Before too long the boys run afoul of the Church, lead by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) with his daughter Sarah (Melissa Leo) by his side. The confrontation becomes increasingly bleak and nasty when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) turns up, lead by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman).
Not since Dogma (1999) has writer/director Kevin Smith so overtly tackled the role of religion in contemporary society. While Dogma was something of a fantasy film that combined heavy doses of Smith trademark scatological and sexual humour, Red State is a gritty fusion of horror, action and social commentary. A lot of Smith’s style of humour is still present, but this time the irreverent sex jokes carry far more sinister undertones in the context of the film’s examination of extreme Christian fundamentalism and government-sanctioned violence.
In Red State Smith, who is openly Catholic, is expressing real fury at the way religion has been perverted by extremist fringe organisations and then been given a sort of legitimacy in parts of conservative America, despite their resemblance to terrorist groups. The Five Points Church are so extremist that even the real-life Westboro Baptist Church are mentioned in the film as opposing them, even though Smith has clearly modelled Abin Cooper and his flock on Fred Phelps and his religious inspired church. However, just when it seemed like Red State could be easily summed up as a film about religious violence and hate crimes, it becomes a film about a siege with the actions of the fictional ATF characters allegedly mirroring those of the actual ATF during the 1993 Waco siege. Red State then also becomes a savage critique of how government agencies ruthlessly handle situations such as Waco, which resulted in large loss of life.
The shifting sympathies, unpredictable narrative and tonal shifts make Red State gripping yet unsettling viewing. Moments of humour are shattered by violence, every death is surprising and shocking, and the film continually shifts focus in unexpected yet intriguing ways. Moments of sudden panicked action are captured through a handheld camera to further add to the films edgy realism. Blasts of gunfire are not cool or exciting but disturbing and intrusive. Rarely has a film been so filled with guns and yet left the audience feeling so cold and sickened by their presence and the damage they do.
While the almost radical narrative shifts make it difficult to pick who the film’s protagonist is, at the centre of all the carnage is the terrifyingly charismatic Pastor Abin Cooper. He is first introduced delivering a lengthy sermon about the supposed evils of homosexuality. The scene is perhaps overlong, but it still hammers home the absurd rationalisations that can be made against same-sex couples through very inventive, selective and hateful interpretations of the Bible. It’s horrifying yet riveting viewing that showcases some of Smith’s best writing. For a director who has so frequently included light-hearted references to homosexuality in his films, Red State feels like a concerted effort to seriously confront the destructive nature of homophobia. It even feels like something of an apology in the way that it has been suggested that Schindler’s List could partly be seen as Steven Spielberg’s apology for being so flippant in his portrayal of Nazis as comic book style villains in his early films.
Whatever the motivations for making Red State, the results are complex, politically charged and radical. There are many of us who were ready to dismiss Smith as a has-been who was perhaps not ever as talented or clever as we had originally been led to believe. With this film he proves us completely wrong and in this case it is good to be wrong. Red State indicates a new level of boldness in Smith, resulting in his best film to date.