I got an unexpected call from Rob Moroney last night, telling me he had an extra ticket to the Red State Tour in DC. I had no idea it was happening. Red State wasn’t a movie I was sure I had much interest in, but I knew Kevin Smith– a hero from my teenage years– would be there. And I also knew that Rob Moroney and I had a track record for hunting down famous people and getting pictures with them. Among other things…
So…OFF WE WENT- taking the metro down to DC again to the Warner Theater, where we had last tackled Denis Leary in a back alley and forced him to sign cigarettes for us, to meet one of the most well known progenitors of the Indy Cinema scene. Oh, and see his newest, most shockingly different movie yet.
Before the show began, Kevin came up on stage to give us in the audience some intel and backstory on the project. While I had heard Kevin Smith was making a horror movie, I had never really read much into it, figuring that, like most of his last few movies, I’d end up seeing it on DVD at some point in the comfort of my own home. Not in this case- I was amidst a sea of maybe two thousand or so Kevin Smith fans, hungry for his second to last project, and certainly his most diverse and unique film in his collection.
So I didn’t know a lot going in. I didn’t know that the badguys were essentially a cartoonized version of the Phelps clan of Everybody Haters, turned into Yosemite Sammites, out to purge the world of everything that used its genitals for non-procreation. Based on Smith’s opening words to the audience, and the final result of the film, it felt like he created this family of yahoos by imagining what it would be like if the Phelps family played too much Grand Theft Auto 3. But more about that when I get to my short review.
Smith explained that he didn’t have so much as hate for the Phelps as frustration. He is always pleasant, and met with equal pleasantness, from the current ring leader, Megan Phelps, who is apparently his number one fan. Smith seems to be making this movie as a catharsis for his feelings towards all Christians who give the religion and community a bad name, especially the Phelps who invoke their faith as a right to hate on everyone. Oh, and he maintains a twittering relationship with said ringleader. When you’re making a movie blasting someone you’re in a a constant twitter poke war with…you’re braving the possibility of painting a crosshair on your back–something I will always give a film maker credit for. I had known none of this coming in, but now I felt geared up– Smith wasn’t just about to show us a horror movie. He was about to show us his thesis film, akin to that of a film student trying to express his inner demons through art, and that made this expensive viewing all the more interesting.
Opening immediately with a simple white on black title card, I knew I was in for something made to feel like a student documentary. I wasn’t far off. Almost cinema-verite in it’s stylings, Smith’s camera follows it’s protagonist around for the first thirty or so minutes of the movie as we learn, along with him, about the dangerous world of psycho-Christianity. A jarring classroom scene where a history teacher decides to tell it like it is starts our journey down a dark road of a world where freedom of speech can lead to the freedom of ultimate evil.
If not managed correctly. Enter the first act– a satirical look at the Cooper Family, who stand in for the Phelps, and their media buzz-generating “God Hates Gays” first scene protesting a funeral of a local gay male, murdered in a story that sounds similar to the Shepard tragedy years back. Here Smith makes it clear that this movie is thesis by stating the Problem. When the teacher goes off topic in class and begins her own rant about these “nuckin futz” people, we realize that this isn’t just some local horror story, that this kind of behavior is something that could propagate because we as a country have no legal way of containing it. And when we as Americans cannot control something we deem evil because of our own Constitution, that makes us damned angry.
So, what is the Cause for our Problem? Smith next introduces us to our three lead boys, Travis, Jarod and Billy-Ray, who’s big weekend plans are to gang bang a 40 year old woman they found on a website similar to Craigslist, but just for sex, through their cell phone. Now, I know the Phelps/Cooper clan are both full of evil, mean spirited whack jobs who probably deserve the hell the preach everyone else is going to, but at the same time, these three guys set themselves up to be the ultimate horror movie victims just by sending an email! Smith plays with an old convention but puts enough of a new spin on it that it speaks clearly– we do live in a society with some scummy people, so we should probably expect a little bit of backlash from the Christian Right.
But that’s a little bit. Not a lot. Not, ya know, what the Coopers end up doing to these good ol’ boys once they finally get trapped inside the Five Points Compound…and boy oh boy does it get grim and gruesome.
After a twist I won’t reveal but you can probably predict, the boys end up as human sacrifices for the Cooper family inside their heavily secured, walled off, and Waco inspired fortress. Inside the main Church, a cleansing ritual, not unlike those in the Silent Hill movie, is about to take place. Michael Parks leads the pack of hungry animals as the preacher and head of family Abin Cooper, and delivers what must be one of the longest monologues in movie history.
An entire 10 or 15 minutes is dedicated to Smith using his pen to channel Parks into a representation of every. single. thing. you could possibly despise and fear in a super Christian leader. His flock is not of sheep, but of sharks. He is not a wholesome father, but the freaking Emperor from Star Wars with the Book of God as his force power. He is Hitler minus the mustache but with such a down home charm, that the eerie body tied to a cross behind him is almost never in the spotlight while he gives his testimony to the higher power. Smith’s writing flows so fluidly out of Park’s mouth you would never believe this was the guy who wrote the overtly staged conversations of Dante and Randall in both Clerks films.
Standing motionless, we know what is behind the curtain. We know they are planning something. What is most unsettling is that all of this goes on and on and no one and nothing comes to any sort of rescue or aide. And yet behind Cooper always stands, motionless, that figure tied to a cross under a white cloth. From here on till the big game changer in the mid-point of the movie, Red State becomes the horror film we expected, and shows that Kevin Smith does in fact have more than one dimension to his film making abilities. It’s a rough, wire-tight thriller during this segment, and I highly recommend this part to fans of the genre.
Smith said in some of his Q&A answers after the movie that “unsettling” was one of the key tones he was going for. To yank us out of our comfort zones and just present as unpleasant an image, a feeling, a connotation as possible. It works. Like most horror movies about cults, the family is very cheery in their devil’s deeds. Some of the women respond to this act with an almost orgasmic level of “Thank you Jesus” styled praise. Cooper does tell the children to leave the room before they start the Ritual, sweet as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka, but once the work begins we finally realize once and for all the ultimate truth: If a clan like the Coopers, from any extreme religion, could get away with this then yes, they’d probably do it.
Smith doesn’t make his ritual gory, complex, or even overly cruel. It’s not a torture porn moment, and for that he has my full commendation. It is actually scarier because what they Coopers do to their victims is as simple as flipping a light switch. They feel they are only killing insects.
It is only a few more minutes from this scene that the movie changes from being akin to House of 1,000 Corpses into The Devil’s Rejects. From internal haunted-house of the damned movie, into cops-versus-psychos, the last hour or so of the film opens with ATF Agent Kenan, played by John Goodman, waking up, answering a phone call from his superior officer, and giving us another didactic conversation/monologue about this Cooper family.
Smith slyly inserts a line acknowledging that the Phelps also live in this world, but “Aren’t gun nuts” like the Cooper zealots. Again, John Goodman delivers these lines so fluidly that, even though they’re all expository, it makes Smith’s movie all the more credible as we learn almost every thing we need to know about both the real family and this fake one through what is essentially one long winded Wiki article turned monologue. But it’s John Goodman so we don’t mind, we actually thoroughly enjoy getting schooled on the subject.
Smith did his research, and chose the best actors possible for delivering it to us. Thus Act 2 of his thesis is a very powerful argument, as the government agents break some of our own moral beliefs in pursuit of the destruction of this blemish to America’s Image. Yes, the agents get the “kill ‘em all let God Sort ‘Em Out” order. No- you will never believe the wacky conversation John Goodman goes through with his superiors in argument. Yes, John Goodman eventually goes Rambo on some super-Christians. No, the movie does not get much more interesting past this point.
After the gunfire erupts, the movie becomes Smith’s chance at an action film. I feel one of his only flaws with the film is that he has still not learned how to direct action. A few volleys go back and forth, someone you don’t expect to bite the bullet chomps on one hard, and then after that it is about 20 minutes of people shooting guns in three quarter shots, with almost no impact shots accompanying the rhythm. In the background, a far more interesting conversation between the last teenage-boy hostage and one of the Coopers who wishes to escape takes backstage to Goodman deciding whether it is morally right to kill the entire family, including the children. But then again, he doesn’t want his wife “clipping coupons” till he retires.
This all isn’t to say the action isn’t kinetic or valid. It just simply goes on far too long without much change of pace. Abin Cooper stands at the same window with the same sniper rifle firing the exact same shot for nearly 5 minutes. I know this isn’t supposed to be a balls to the wall action fest, and it is supposed to have a documentary feel, but it just loses it’s luster after three or four religious parables are exchanged by the various remaining members of the family.
And just when it feels like the whole movie is about to go over time, and become a slog fest of bullets not-hitting-anything, Smith pulls the most brilliant rabbit out of his ass I have ever witnessed in an independent horror film. I will not spoil it. Suffice it to say it was so out of left field, and so manipulative, and so original that any bit of criticism I just gave the movie is pretty much invalid. Yes, Smith. This is your single most genius moment of film making ever. You have achieved something I’ve never seen in a film like this before. And you have done it flawlessly. Let’s call this the “what if” scenario in Kevin’s thesis. And it is fucking chilling.
After which the film goes into Act 3 mode, a little short in it’s pacing, but it works out well enough. Smith offers a very Coen-esque final thought, and Goodman plays it ever so flawlessly, even when it starts to sag in the writing. The monologue he delivers is meaningful, but I feel like we get the message two lines into it. Smith sorta let’s his writing get the best of him in the end, and I felt we deserved something more bullet point after all of this back-and-forth.
Cut to the final scene. Abin Cooper’s final resting place. The final “quote” if you will. This is a last shot that sums up everything Smith really feels about the subject. Non-violently, and playing off the ideas of freedom of speech from both directions. It hits home very hard with what we really want to say to these people, something we CAN realistically, and SHOULD realistically do. This IS the message Kevin Smith wants to deliver, and is done so with that bullet point I was craving all throughout Goodman’s epilogue. You will feel good about this one. Oh, and if you don’t laugh at it, you’re probably not human.
After the film, Smith did his typical Q&A fest, wherein film nerds, super fans, and just weird people would sit in front of microphones and ask him to tell them they were awesome. I sadly did not get to make it up to the microphone in time, but alas…it was worth it– I probably wouldn’t have had a good question to ask, and in front of all those people Smith would have just started lauding his own film again for another five minutes, regardless of what question I did manage to choke out.
So…yep. Rob and I did the classic fall back– we waited for an hour and a half outside the loading dock, in the rain, to meet this fat bastard. Two people who already got some time on stage with the man were waiting with us, and we joked and gibed for a while. Finally, Smith got on the bus, and we totally missed a chance to see him. Ever vigilant, we were about to create a picket line of our own to demand Smith get off his bus and sign our damned books/pictures etc. Well, we didn’t have to. A very nice dude came off the bus and said “How many of you are there?” Four! We replied. “Come on” he said. Seriously? For serious. So we did. Smith lumbered out of the bus, it’s weight shifting into a sigh of relief under his mass, both of figure and accomplishment- this dude has done a LOT from humble beginnings- and gave us four or five minutes to chat with him, as well as signed my much vaunted SAP Logo, and took one of my biz cards as well.
I even recorded my conversation with him, but I’ll put that up later after I get some editing done with it. For now, enjoy this picture I got with the guy and Rob. Mission: Accomplished.
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