Red State

October 15, 2011
Film still, Red State, 2011
Film still, Red State, 2011

After watching Red State, the first impulse is to sit back and ask: “What was that all about?” While this is a film that appears to have a message, it’s not an easy one to decipher. Perhaps the only thing that comes through clearly is that the United States is a terrible place beset with dysfunctional, foul-mouthed teenagers; fire and brimstone preachers with homicidal tendencies; and a law enforcement agency that seems to think the best way of dealing with trouble-makers is to massacre them. Not one of the great advertisements for the American Way of Life.

The director, Kevin Smith, is poised somewhere between cult and mainstream status in the USA. His third feature, Chasing Amy (1997), about a boy pursuing a girl that prefers girls, was a surprise hit with critics and public. Since then he has continued to make films, draw comics and write a very popular blog.

Smith started talking about this project in 2006 as a “straight horror film”. From this point it became a merry dance through social media, as funding, production and distribution all turned into topics of controversy. The film was finished by mid-2010, but Smith managed to alienate the industry by announcing he would auction off distribution rights, before making a last-minute decision to distribute it himself. The result is that Red State has enjoyed only limited theatrical screenings in the USA, before being released directly to the DVD and VOD markets. Australians, however, will be able to see it on the big screen.

The other controversial aspect of the film is its portrayal of a group of extreme Christian fundamentalists, based loosely on pastor Fred Phelps, the loon who leads his brethren at the Westboro Baptist Church in noisy protests at funerals. Phelps was slightly peeved at Smith’s portrayal of the church as a group of deranged serial killers led by the smooth-talking preacher, Abin Cooper, played with sinister aplomb by Michael Parks. There is nothing subtle about the satire as the fictional group are said to be holding their 432nd funeral demonstration since 2001.

Despite the Westboro church’s protests, Smith has protected himself from legal action in a tricky way by having Phelps mentioned in the film, with the specific statement that he runs another group.

After all the off-screen antics, the film itself is a dreadful mishmash. It begins with three teenage boys in a small mid-western town chasing up a sex ad they find on the internet. They soon find themselves in the clutches of pastor Cooper and his bloodthirsty flock, where they are held captive while the reverend delivers a long, crazy sermon. At the conclusion of this address – a virtuoso piece of writing that goes on for a little too long – the violence begins.

In no time it escalates into a full-scale shoot-out between the brethren and the forces of law and order, led by John Goodman, as special agent Keenan. One thinks inevitably of the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas, when another self-styled guru, David Koresh, led his followers in a fight to the death with police.

There is a twist in the ending of Red State which I won’t give away, but it cannot save this flawed movie, which often seems like a collage of ideas thrown together in haste. Smith himself has called this an “unpleasant, nasty film”, and many reviewers have been quick to say “Amen!” It is unpleasant on a number of levels, starting with the teenagers’ dialogue, which is little more than a torrent of swear words. One can’t be too censorious, because it’s hardly different from what one might hear outside a Sydney pub on a Friday night, but it’s ugly stuff.

Then there is the fundamentalist sect, whose taste for murderous violence is too gung-ho to be believed. The police and FBI agents are hardly any better. After a few momentary scruples they are willing to shoot everyone in sight, largely to eliminate witnesses of their own foul-ups.

Like the Coen brothers, Smith likes to develop a character to a certain extent, only to have them suddenly eliminated. With the Coens there is usually some black humour associated with this manouevre, which short-circuits the usual Hollywood expectations whereby the hero always survives an impossible ordeal. Not so with Smith, who snuffs out his protagonists with apparent randomness.

There are moments in this film that make one think of the crazed psycho-killers in films by Wes Craven and his ilk, but it would be difficult to categorise Red State as a genuine horror film. There is simply too much information, too many political and social points being made, too many moral ambiguities. One almost longs for the narrow moral compass of the average American horror flick in which sexually promiscuous teenagers are carved up by some axe-wielding avenger. In these films, morality is murder.

By contrast, Red State seems completely amoral, with the absence of heroes presumably reflecting Smith’s view of American society. Ultimately this movie will probably be filed under “Arthouse”, otherwise known as the Too-Hard Basket.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 15, 2011

USA. Rated MA 15+, 88 minutes.