Red State, 2011.
Directed by Kevin Smith.
Starring Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Stephen Root.
Three horny teenagers go to meet a woman they met on the Internet for a night of sex. What could go wrong? Religious zealots, mainly.
Just when you think you’ve figured out what Red State is, the film takes great pride in either going against the genre in which it has established itself, or switching genre altogether.
It starts with three college kids, all male – Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) – excitedly discussing the elderly woman they’ve coaxed over the Internet into having sex with them. “I just got a little hard,” Billy Ray sings to the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb, like a giggling seven-year-old. But isn’t that a little, you know, gay? They mull it over for a bit… no.
There’s a sinister tone in the air. Travis drives past a local homosexual boy’s funeral on his way to school that morning. His body had been found in a dumpster outside a gay nightclub. A small, but vocal crowd heckle the coffin on its way down the church steps. They’re from the Five Points Church and hold signs declaring “GOD HATES FAGS”. Like the Phelpses – “America’s most hated family” – they’re Christian hyper-fundaMENTALists. An old man stands silent and content behind the protestors. He’s Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the Five Points Church’s pastor. The film does that eerie, slowed down shot/reverse shot thing as Travis passes.
“Oh, so it’s that sort of film? The three kids go to have a fun time with this elderly woman, but she drugs them and they’re kidnapped by the Five Points Church to be tortured in the name of God?” Yeah, well, that’s what happens in the first half hour. You know what’s coming. You’ve placed bets on out who the protagonists and antagonists are, what genre the narrative will follow, who is most likely to die first.
Thirty minutes in, the film shifts entirely by introducing a new protagonist, Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), and thus a completely new perspective on the story. A similar jump occurs again near the end. It prevents you from settling.
It’s odd, but refreshing. The inability to relate to one clear character onscreen keeps you at a distance, which allows Kevin Smith to make them as despicable and irredeemable as he likes.
Oh yeah – it’s a Kevin Smith film, by the way. Not that you’d really know from watching it. His presence increases in the final reel, but the visual style and writing of the film is quite apart from his usual fare.
The camera is shaky, but not in an obtrusive ADHD, 24 way. The editing is choppy, but it also never protrudes offensively. For those jump cuts and shaky camera make sense from the characters’ perspectives.
Shortly after being captured, for instance, Jared finds himself locked in a small cage with a blanket draped over it. The camera is right in there with him, claustrophobically so, and the film occasionally jump cuts through his various stages of torment. He has no sense of time and his perception is clouded by panic. The camerawork and editing evoke a similar experience in us.
The writing is of a very high standard. In one of the many perspective jumps between characters, Smith switches from Jared shaking in his cage to Cooper delivering a sermon. They occupy the same church hall. You can see Jared’s blanket-covered cage just below the stage.
Cooper proceeds to preach for ten minutes. The only interruptions are the occasional bleats of “a-men” from his congregation. Ten minutes is a long time to focus on a single monologue in any medium, yet this is the film’s most captivating scene. Parks’ performance is very assured. His sentences never seem to stop. He holds the last syllable of each line like some holy, dovetailing chant. He talks of demons and inequality with such conviction and rigor that you feel the muscles in your neck yearning to nod along with him. But it’s the voice that entices you, not the sermon’s content. For the substance of his speech is full of spite and hate. You can see how the ignorant and weak-minded are manipulated into these hateful flocks.
Red State is as though Kevin Smith found a reset button somewhere under his baseball cap. Freeing himself from the demands and limitations of the mainstream film industry appears to have helped him break from his recent spate of average quality films. The way Red State hops from half-genre to half-genre echoes an immature version of the Coen brothers; his disregard for the characters’ integrity sharing a similarity with Burn After Reading. But it is still quintessentially Smith-ian, particularly the last scenes. It’s a confusing experience overall. But in a good way. Definitely in a good way.
365 Days, 100 Films