The notion that Fred Phelps – pastor of the charming family church Westboro Baptist, prolific funeral picketer, originator of the adorable slogan
“God Doesn’t Much Care For Homosexuals At All” “God Hates Fags” – is perhaps the worst person on the globe right now isn’t new; after all, perhaps the only good thing about the Phelps clan is that nobody actually takes them seriously. No, what’s truly surprising about public perception of the Westboro Baptist Church is that it took this long for someone to turn them into legitimate on-screen villains.
Enter Kevin Smith, prolific filmmaker known for his Jersey-set comedies, one half of Jay and Silent Bob, and cinema artiste who works in profanity, wiener jokes, and pop-culture references the way other artists may work in clay or oil paints. Seemingly tired of resting on his laurels as the proto-Apatow, Smith self-financed and released Red State, a gritty, backwoods horror movie that casts a thinly-disguised version of the WBC as its heavies. It’s not particularly shocking that Smith would do such a drastic stylistic about-face, but it’s pretty startling how good it is.
Not that Smith has completely abandoned all of his hallmarks. Frank, adolescent sex abounds in the film’s opening scenes, as three shiftless high-school boys make plans to lose their virginity to a trailer-dwelling cougar; in fact, the entirety of Red State is remarkably talky for the notoriously visceral medium of horror cinema. Once our ostensible protagonists awake in restraints with spiked-beer hangovers, no more laid than they were an hour ago and, to add insult to injury, the object sermon of Five Points Church’s ritualistic-murderin’, gay-hatin’ preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), Smith saddles Parks with the task of delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon that goes on, like many Kevin Smith-penned speeches, for an interminable length of time. It’s mesmerizing, mostly due to Parks – in a just world, this fifteen minutes of pure performance would catapult Parks to the top of the shortlist for 2012’s Oscar ceremony – but it also threatens to derail the film’s considerable momentum.
Credit Smith, though, for bringing the film back from the brink in a big way – Parks’ marathon sermon flags towards the middle, but it does serve a purpose, and Smith’s able direction captures, through foreboding angles and congregation reaction shots, a potent sense of creeping dread. And once he does, Red State turns into a capable, surprisingly brutal thriller, one littered with complex moral conundrums and dotted with headstones. Even when the narrative shifts from bone-chilling horror to Waco-like bullet-ridden standoff, Smith never makes the shift too obvious, and never allows the suspense to let up. People have cautiously meted out praise for Smith before, praising his ear for engaging dialogue as they deride him as unremarkable on the directorial front, but it’s under his watchful eye that Red State thrives – he exhibits here visual flair, a knack for an engaging action setpiece, and an intuitive grasp of tone. It’s wonderful, rejuvenated work from a director who’s spent the better part of two decades in the game, just now discovering his real artistic muse.
It helps that Red State is performed to the hilt. Centering as it does on religious fanaticism – and considering how pop-eyed and loopy the real-life Phelps clan is – the material requires great performers to avoid hokum. Michael Parks, as our surrogate Phelps, is game for the task; he’s the very portrait of smiling evil, smug and flippant, but capable of ramping up his forcible rhetoric to a disturbing fever pitch. His voice rises and falls in all the right places, capturing the theatrical dynamic that is so paramount to spearheading this sort of church. John Goodman’s FBI agent character is introduced late in the game to provide a tangible foil to Parks’ wild-eyed insanity, and their acting during their epic clash is positively electrifying, Goodman channeling the spellbinding performances he’s contributed to a fistful of Coen Brothers films, Parks tapping into the vein of smirking menace he’s deployed for directors like Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The smaller performances are equally as affecting: recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo embodies her thankless role perfectly, the remarkable character actor Stephen Root shines despite minimal screen time and a dead-end character arc, and relative newcomer Kyle Gallner once again illustrates that he’s got emotion and physicality beyond his years.
And, fortunately, every beat of Smith’s script lands with blunt force; by and large, he constructs horror film archetypes, and then pulls the rug out from us by quickly and brutally dispatching a startling majority of the characters we expect to be around by the film’s end. He does this largely without fanfare, establishing early on the disposable nature of these characters. It’s a clever subversion of horror tropes, the way that Smith consistently shifts our focus, and it keeps us on our toes – this seemingly revolutionary idea that, in a movie chock-full of killers, anyone can be dispatched in any moment keeps the audience on edge, and it’s seamless.
Red State is flawed, of course. Parks remains an electric performer throughout, but the script strips his character of his evil a bit as the film goes on, slowly peeling away his terrifying, grave rationale for his thoughts and actions, eventually leaving a smug southern man with a superiority complex. Somehow, as Parks’ character is diluted, he comes across as slightly less evil than the real Fred Phelps, even as he coldly slaughters infidels. There’s a problematic line of expository dialogue somewhere around the film’s midpoint that establishes that the Five Points Church exists in the same universe as the Westboro Baptist Church; it’s almost a throwaway line, but it needles, because the effect of Red State as an anti-WBC screed is diluted by rendering the real-life zealots not-that-bad by comparison. Red State needs, to drive its point home, to exist as a barely-disguised version of the Phelps clan, to drive home how hideous their brand of homeland terrorism really is. And then there’s the ending – taken on its own merits, the resolution is fine, but just prior to the proper wrap-up, Red State threatens to introduce a brand-new wrinkle, by introducing a potential twist that would be legitimately mind-boggling. If this thread had been followed through with, Red State would be a completely new brand of ballsy – it has the makings of being one of the most dynamic twists in all of horror filmdom, but Smith darts around the follow-through, backing away from this development with a hasty explanation that works in practice, but lacks that potential punch.
But that’s all largely irrelevant – minor problems aside, Red State is a lean, nasty little thriller, provocative, unpredictable, and remarkably assured, even as it comes from the loins of a filmmaker in unfamiliar territory. As Smith’s first venture outside of the world of farce, it’s an excellent, taut little grindhouse flick. Kevin Smith is capable of remarkably funny movies – it’s nice to know that, stripped of the constraints that dictate that he must be a clown at all times, he can tighten the screws with suspenseful, nervy little delights like Red State.