“God hates fags, God hates fag enablers; therefore God hates Kevin Smith.” — a Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson.
Defying audience expectations in a manner as bold and brazen as Quentin Tarantino calling “cut” on a syrupy Hollywood rom-com or Michael Bay producing a quirky indie drama, writer/director/cranky airline commuter Kevin Smith – who is best known for hazily plotted stoner comedies – delivers a shocking late career bolt from the blue in Red State, a supremely sacrilegious scary movie fitted with political and religious undertones as subtle as a sock of pennies to the nads.
I say “late career” not because Smith is old (he’s 41) but because he’s stated multiple times on the record that he has one more film left in him. That film, apparently a two-part production about hockey, further underlines Smith’s presence in the industry as a dark horse, an anti-auteur impossible to second guess and, even for his staunchest fans, equally impossible to rely on. His 2004 J-Lo clunker Jersey Girl is the subject of some ridicule, even from the director himself, as is his dopey 2010 buddy cop comedy Cop Out.
But what a shame if ‘Silent Bob’ Smith calls it quits after proving with such audacious aplomb his ability to steer and upturn genres traditionally located very far from home.
Think you know what to expect from me, mofo? The low-fi visionary behind Clerks 1 and 2, Mallrats and Chasing Amy asks in between frames of his first scintillating mind-bend. Think again.
Switching to the macabre confines of horror/thriller affords the Catholic-raised Smith the opportunity to voice a deep cynicism of the church hinted at, with varying degrees of success, in 1999’s wacky religious spoof Dogma. It’s an opportunity he relishes with the energy of a fearless skinflint first-time filmmaker.
The story of Red State, at least until it decides to spectacularly circumvent audience expectations, follows three horny high school fellas who find a woman online apparently keen to have sex with them. But the woman is bait for a perverse trap engineered by ultra right wing Christian loonies and the trio wake up drugged in the lair of an extreme church headed by pastor Abid Cooper (Michael Parks), who preaches and sings to a congregation of family members.
Cooper goes on a long, sprawling biblical monologue, twisting the Bible’s words to justify sending these “demons” to hell before the body count kicks off. With a morbidly soulful presence measured in quiet, eerie control, Parks makes the scene rousing and chillingly authentic. Smith resists the temptation to jazz up his dialogue with the kind of contemporary snap crackle word spa he’s been celebrated for in the past. The dialogue is devotedly character-based.
Smith, who also edited the film, maintains an uneasy visual momentum. The structure of the action scenes — and action has never been his forte — is woozily cobbled together but feeds into an unsettling atmosphere, a feeling of uncertainty and edginess. In this sense he gets away with a little more than he otherwise would.
Despite the occasional horror one-liner, Red State is unnervingly tense and its structural and tonal changes spark intensity on a different level. You can’t second-guess the story. You can’t predict where it will go. Catching the audience off-guard — on an intellectual and visceral level — was part of Smith’s game plan from the get-go.
Red State arrives with an expectation that it will be caked in meat hook horror. When John Goodman’s character is introduced — he too, playing a federal agent, is perfectly cast — the film bends into hostage drama archetype then turns again into something more difficult to peg. If the tonal variations jar with some audiences, they are in service of a wider purpose: to discombobulate the viewer, to get them navigating curvy tunnels when they expected straight hallways.
The film’s core ambitions are infinitely more daring than anything Smith has attempted before. Its potent messages are about people twisting common ideology to serve their own delirious prejudices and how evil can be found within the most righteous of intentions. And – in a late twist, even more daringly – how political environments channel such things things as religious hypocrisy into a tighter, tauter, uglier package, where different off-cuts of reality are forced into reactionary thinking. These are messy and complicated issues, and the film has to wear some of that mess on its sleeves to tick the boxes.
Most unsettling is the knowledge that the story’s premise isn’t far from the mark. There are numerous real life inspirations that presumably propelled Smith’s vision.
Think Hell House, a religious theme park in which kids are guided through rooms of simulated horror before being led to a place where they are grouped with people who pray for their souls.
Think the foul antics of the Westboro Baptist Church — which inspire an early reel in Red State — who picket the funerals of homosexuals and who, in fact, picketed Red State’s premiere at Sundance.
And think Waco, the 50 day standoff between the FBI and a well-armed cult religious sect in 1993.
Yeah: the premise of Red State is eerily plausible. The core factors driving this risky and raw experiment in allegorical extremities are rooted, like classic George Romero zombie films, in reality and social metaphor. It is a political film first and foremost; the thrills, spills and horrors play second fiddle.
Whether critics rate the film or not — whether they sledge Smith’s chutzpah or admire his bravado — this is something they are duty-bound to comprehend.
Red State’s Australian theatrical release date: October 13, 2011.