Genre can be a fairly touchy subject when it comes to cinephiles, and horror fans are no exception. While I, too, fall into the trap of needing things to fit into specific parameters, I also see how being a slave to genre definition can rob a film of its potential power, due to the myopic viewpoint of the audience. I fully believe that genre is a spectrum, and unless a director is using a specific genre as expression (or if they are just not very good), that genre SHOULDN’T be so specific – that shades of different artistic expression should be more fluid, allowing the definition to possibly encompass many different approaches and styles. With this in mind, I bring to you my views on Kevin Smith’s RED STATE.
When I first heard that Smith, the fan-boy favorite that burst onto the scene with his garage-band-like film CLERKS, was prepping a horror film, my brain went into overload. The man that brought us the witty CHASING AMY, the ballsy DOGMA, the underrated MALLRATS, and the mostly sophomoric JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK was helming a horror film, and I have to say, my emotions ran from excited to doubtful. I’m a Kevin Smith fan, and while I definitely lean toward the fan-boy side of things myself, I’m also a realist. Kevin Smith, provocateur and arbiter of dick-jokes, helming a “serious” horror film? What would it be like? What did horror mean to the man whose previous films answered “hard hitting” questions such as Lois Lane’s capacity to receive Superman’s super-seed and whether the contractors aboard the Death Star were innocent victims? Well, the answer was simply this: horror, to Kevin Smith (and many, many others), is the perversion of God, the abuse of authority, and religious trust by false prophets and hate-mongers.
RED STATE deals with the Coopers, a family of fanatical religious zealots loosely based on the real-life Phelps Family, the hatemongers famous for the “God Hates Fags” pickets. Three backwoods teenage boys, on their way to lose their virginities via an online rendezvous, find themselves at the hands of the Coopers, whose plan to rid the world of wickedness have coalesced into abducting “perverts and sexual deviants”; executing them in their house of prayer. The Cooper family is led by their fiery patriarch Abin Cooper, played expertly by the highly underrated and hugely talented Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill), a man whose fanatical devotion has turned his family into a group of killers. Due to an accidental run-in with their current victims, local law enforcement discovers the Coopers’ murderous worship, and soon the dealings turn into a standoff between the Coopers (including Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo and Smith’s own wife, Jennifer Schwalbach) and the ATF, headed by Agent Keenen (an amazing John Goodman). From there, the horror of fundamentalism turns into an action-packed siege – full of guns, government, and God – and the failings of all three.
RED STATE is, from a technical standpoint, Smith’s best film to date, showing impressive film-work that, while never showy, creates an atmosphere of dread and tension, all beautifully photographed by CLERKS cinematographer David Klein. We all know why where here, and despite the wonderful camera-work, it’s Smith’s writing that has yielded him most of his accolades, and RED STATE is no exception. Smith’s writing here is the best he’s done in years, showing how the raw talent displayed in the CLERKS screenplay morphed into the more serious writing of CHASING AMY, as well as the honesty of Smith’s underrated CLERKS II. The writing, however, would fall flat in the hands of the wrong cast, and thankfully, the cast of RED STATE is top notch all the way. Parks’ portrayal of Abin Cooper is a sight to behold, and believe me when I say that it was one of the best, if not THE best, performances of 2011. Evoking the terrifying dogma of Fred Phelps while eschewing his pedantic, boring-as-paint-drying evangelism, Parks’ Abin Cooper is one of the best screen villains in a long time. Conversely, John Goodman’s portrayal of an ATF agent caught in the perilous position between freedom of religion and Christian terrorism is also top-notch, and as always, it’s a pleasure seeing TV’s “Dan Connor” on-screen in such a pivotal role. Stephen Root, Kyle Gallner, and Kerry Bishe all provide stand out support, and newcomer Nicholas Braun shines in his smaller but impactful role as Billy Ray, one of the three doomed teens. (It would be remiss to fail to mention the “soundtrack” of the film, mainly containing spirituals sung by Parks, which completes the overall contrast between the beauty and awfulness of the goings-on).
To give any more information about RED STATE’s plot would rob it of its power, but I can honestly say that RED STATE is Kevin Smith’s best film to date, and, while it may not be remembered as having the raw awesomeness of CLERKS, it should be remembered as the film in which Smith learned restraint and composition. For the detractors that cry “foul” at its “horror” label, I offer this: if people like Fred Phelps and his malignant brood aren’t the real-life Freddy Krugers and Jason Vorhees’ of today, I challenge you to find people more horrific. RED STATE deals with the perversion of power and the terrorism of hate – amazingly relevant for our times, and truly, a horror film for this generation.
*Note: Before getting a general release, Kevin Smith toured RED STATE as a Q & A screening. I saw the tour in Indianapolis, and after the film, Smith spoke for two-hours about the making of the film, as well as his dealing with the real life inspiration for the film, the Phelps family. Many nights of the tour, the Phelps picketed the film, and the night after the Indianapolis screening, Smith took the film to Kansas City, where he invited the Phelps’ to attend. They lasted 15 minutes, and on their way out, bestowed Smith with a Red State protest placard, all personally signed by the Phelps, along with each of their own favorite lines of scripture. Like him or not, Smith’s film hit its mark, and that, my friends, is what filmmaking is all about.
Nathan Erdel is a screenwriter. He wrote Headless and some other stuff. He likes beer, metal, pizza, and horror. He has three cats and one wife.