Throughout my educational career, I’ve managed to frustrate many instructors—most of them smarter than me—who liked me, who liked talking to me, who liked my work, but ultimately had to give me a grade lower than what I was capable of. My mom, she’d drive 40 minutes from the suburbs to Detroit and stand in line patiently to speak with one of my teachers, just to be told that I was failing to live up to my potential. There was much hand-wringing; all of it justified. What do you do with potential that refuses to realize itself? That’s a question you could ask of Kevin Smith, whose Red State represents the first film of his that’s free from the yoke of an overseer. It comes close, very close, to being his first film as a mature artist, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.
This can be said of most of the movies Smith has done since Clerks, which was a great first feature, a great independent comedy, but established the director as a maestro of dick jokes and Star Wars references. Chasing Amy was close to greatness, but for its solipsistic treatment of sexuality. Dogma came close, but couldn’t walk away from Jay and Silent Bob. Clerks 2 refused to grow up. After the failure of Cop Out, Smith threw up his hands and declared himself done with the mainstream. He was going to make a movie his way, on his terms, and thus we have Red State, which has few comedic elements and manages, at times, to be one hell of a gripping movie. Instead of being a platform for Smith, whose rabble rousing about the state of Hollywood and the width of airline seats has not gone unnoticed, it ends up being a scene-stealer for two old hands—Michael Parks and John Goodman—who dance around Smith’s weaknesses and deliver two of the more compelling performances of the year.
To get there, however, we’ve got to get through some stuff about a trio of high school dudes who want to hook up with a chick in her trailer. None of the teens are really that important, save that they’ve got great names (Billy-Ray!) and some of the worst movie hair I’ve seen in a long time. If Red State is a horror movie, then it is very much a Dead Teenager sort of horror film, where the teens don’t count for much beyond cannon fodder. They debate whether or not sleeping with the same woman in succession is a “faggoty” endeavor, but are off on their merry way to meet a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo), who isn’t quite what her online profile picture indicated. In short order, the boys are knocked out and taken to a compound belonging to the Five Points Baptist Church, headed by Pastor Abin Cooper (Parks).
Five Points: They’re a lot like the Westboro Baptist Church in that they protest funerals (including “that dead pope’s funeral in Italy”), but their extremism is taken, well, to the extreme. They aim to entrap fornicators, philanderers and homosexuals, torturing and killing them in the name of the Lord. This’d be entirely ridiculous were it not for Parks, who delivers his film-dominating sermon with such conviction that the existence of a guy like Abin Cooper is nothing short of plausible. His congregation of sons, daughters and grandchildren are enthralled by his routine, responding to his every call, exalting his words, laughing as he moons around the pulpit. He’s a charismatic guy, and charisma’s really all you need. Worse though, he’s a charismatic guy on the lunatic fringe, which is what makes him dangerous.
After an altercation with the police (including, as the chief, the underutilized Stephen Root), the ATF are called in to search the premise for illegal weaponry. The point man on the operation is Special Agent Keenan (Goodman), who is caught off-guard when Cooper and his clan open fire from the compound. Once he radios in this situation, he’s given an order he struggles with: The complete destruction of the Five Points church. Though the film rushes through it, Goodman is good in the ensuing firefight, as is Parks, but both men are at their best when the gunfire is quiet and both are allowed to speak. Like Dogma, Red State is a film dealing with the dangers of belief. Red State is much more ambitious than Dogma, however, as it’s clear how much Smith fears what our beliefs can drive us to do. The Armageddon of Red State is intense, personal—it is not an apocalypse of loopholes, and Goodman’s character finds nothing funny about a group of nutjobs willing to turn machine guns on the society that mocks them.
But the movie itself does. Maybe it’s necessary to laugh at Abin Cooper’s demise, to see him brought low. If that’s what we, as an audience, need to bring closure to the film, then fine, Cooper’s a fine boogeyman-cum-fool. I’d like to think, however, that we’re smarter than that, that we can deal with and rationalize Cooper without the film reaching for obvious jokes. People like Cooper are, in conversation, legitimately scary. Sometimes it’s nice to laugh off fear. Sometimes it’s better to be scared. Given the continuing radicalization of American discourse, often upon religious lines, I think the latter would have been more effective. For now, that seems like a road Kevin Smith is averse to traveling on.
Red State. Directed by Kevin Smith. With Michael Parks (Abin Cooper), John Goodman (Special Agent Keenan), Melissa Leo (Sarah Cooper), Stephen Root (Sheriff Wynan), and Kerry Bishé (Cheyenne). Released September 23, 2011, by Lionsgate.