Movie Review: Red State (2011)
For an hour I was impressed. Unfortunately, this thing lasts an hour and a half.
I didn’t pay much attention to “Red State” and its surrounding controversy when it arrived in 2011. Maybe because the controversy arrived and the movie didn’t. After so-so reviews at Sundance, writer-director Kevin Smith created his own company, SModcast Pictures, to distribute it. Kinda sorta. “Red State,” according to Box Office Mojo, played in five theaters in March, one in August, and one at the end of September. Then it went to VOD. Then it disappeared. Blip.
Part of the problem is the one Philip Roth identified in 1961—the difficulty of making the absurdity of American life credible—but at least in one area Smith doesn’t do poorly. He gives us a version of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, but with guns guns guns. He puts us in their church. He forces us to hear their sermon. Then he gets trigger-happy. He dramatizes not only a version of Westboro but a version of Waco. Equal time, I suppose. Doesn’t work. Falls flat. Feels false.
Plus, for a movie that makes a homophobic group the enemy, it feels a little homophobic.
A vengeful God
Three teenage boys are hanging out, bored and horny, in a small Southern town. One, Travis (Michael Angarano), late for school, sees a protest by the Five Points Trinity Church and its leader, Rev. Abin Cooper (a stellar Michael Parks), at the funeral of a homosexual kid who was recently murdered. It’s Westboro’s “God Hates Fags” package with one exception: Five Points Church actually murdered this kid. We find that out later.
One of Travis’ friends, Jarod (Kyle Gallner), has found an older woman on the Internet (Melissa Leo) willing to put out. Since boys will be boys, they visit her at her trailer—sidewiping a car en route. There, they drink beer, get undressed, pass out. Drugged. A trap. When Jarod awakes, he’s in a covered cage, inside the Five Points Trinity Church, where Abin Cooper begins his sermon.
Cooper talks about the horrors of modern American society and its homosexual agenda. He preaches on Noah and the Flood: how God killed everyone but one family. He mocks softer churches that talk of a loving God. Does the Noah story sound like a loving God, he asks? God, he says, demands fear. Then he and the members of his church, nice, middle-aged folks, reveal a homosexual kid shrinkwrapped to the cross, whom they kill. Then they push him through a trap door and into the basement, where Travis and the third friend, Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), are tied up. Then they begin to shrinkwrap Jarod to the cross.
These are intense scenes—the best part of the movie—and Parks completely sells them. He’s awful and charismatic and in some sense logical. If you believe in the Flood, why would you believe in a loving God? Jesus’ corrective notwithstanding.
The kind of preaching Cooper does is actually in Kevin Smith’s wheelhouse. I don’t think I’ve seen a Kevin Smith movie as interesting as Kevin Smith talking. YouTube has tons of these videos. He’s a racounteur. So it makes sense he’s at his best when he lets one of his characters speechify.
But then we get into the Waco portion of the story. From wacko to Waco.
A vengeful government
Remember the sideswiped car? Turns out the local Sheriff (Stephen Root) was inside, where he was giving head to another guy. Back at the office, cowardly, shaking, he tells his deputy, Pete (Matt Jones, Badger from “Breaking Bad”), to track down the other car. Pete, it turns out, is pretty good at his job. He does it. It’s at the Five Points Church, where Pete is in the process of being mollified by Abin Cooper until a gunfight breaks out between one of the parishioners and an escaped Billy-Ray, both of whom buy it. Pete buys it, too, but not before calling in the gunfight to the cowardly gay Sheriff. At which point the cowardly gay Sheriff calls in ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman).
Keenan first has to convince his superior to get involved; then he has to convince him to get involved in a measured way. Apparently, the superior, whom, like God, we never see, wants to kill everyone inside—women and children included. It's the story of Noah all over again. But this is about the time my attention began to waver. I didn’t buy it. Seemed like bullshit. And why does Keenan have to convince another agent to follow these orders when he doesn’t?
It’s all scattershot and the body count mounts up. There goes Travis, who gets it in the head—ironically, from the cowardly gay Sheriff. There goes Agent Brooks (Kevin Pollack), who’s barely in this thing. He says a couple of witty lines and is gone. Shame. There goes the cowardly gay Sheriff.
We’ve got one guy left: Can Caleb survive? Do we care? There’s an odd scene, or several scenes, between Caleb and Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), the cute, blonde Five Pointser, who is trying to bargain for the lives of the babies in contradiction to the “blaze of glory” end demanded by Cooper. Both she and Caleb wind up getting killed in cold blood by ATF agents. As always happens. Then the trumpet sounds, announcing the return of God to the world. Or so Cooper believes. It’s actually pot growers next door, playing a joke on him with a huge horn, a huge amplifier, and an iPod. (Not a bad bit, but couldn’t they hear the automatic weapons fire?) Keenan explains all of this at an inquiry that really isn’t an inquiry, where he’s both suspended and promoted. It’s supposed to be a cynical end but the cynicism is immature. There’s nothing subtle about it.
That’s always been Smith’s problem: a lack of maturity and subtlety. I get it with “Clerks”; Smith was only 24 then. Now he’s into his 40s. Time to grow up a bit.