Sunday, May 27, 2012

Say Your Prayers--

The Teratology of Red State


I don't think she's a fan of gun control.

If you are unaware of Fred Phelps, consider yourself lucky; you are much better living in a world where a character such as Phelps does not exist. Unfortunately (the world being what it is), Phelps does exist--as the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka which has gained international notoriety with their “God Hates Fags” campaign. In this crusade, Phelps and his followers travel around the country to picket gay pride parades, military funerals and other churches. They have no political message, they don’t seek repentance; their purpose is to say that the world is coming to an end because men have sex with men. Along with inspiring general hatred and disgust, Phelps and his church are the basis of Kevin Smith’s 2011 movie, Red State.

Director Kevin Smith's counter-protest to the Westboro Baptists.

There were so many places where Red State could have derailed: At the beginning, when three rural high school boys travel to a remote location to have sex with an internet contact, the movie could have become a clichéd hillbilly horror flick, a la The Hills Have Eyes (1977--or 2006, take your pick). When the boys are captured by religious fundamentalists belonging to the Five Points Trinity Church (patterned after the Westboro Baptists), the film could have become another example of torture porn with a Southern charm, a la 2001 Maniacs (2005). At any point the film could have devolved into a two-hour-long monologue by Kevin Smith--a la Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40 (2010) or Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell (2012). But despite tottering at places, Red State remains upright and rattling along.

Watch this: Kevin Smith is more thoughtful than he lets on.

The movie has help staying on track: Its cinematography is well done, focusing on long shots in the rural community and close-ups inside the fundamentalist compound as a way of contrasting the isolation of middle American secular life with the clan mentality of Five Points. Five Points’ spiritual leader and patriarch, Abin Cooper, is perfectly portrayed by Michael Parks, who gives the preacher a rattlesnake’s low rasp instead of the typical televangelist’s bark. Opposite him is ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who is called in to investigate Five Points’ compound and is a perfect choice as a low-key everyman; when we’re introduced to his character, he’s talking to his boss while drinking coffee with his wife at the breakfast table.

I lied--they actually drink OJ.

As a Smith film, Red State shows extreme restraint. It's heavy-handed, but it has the integrity to be heavy-handed equally: The faithful and the faithless have equal amounts of warts for the camera. It has naturalism to it: The scarcity of music, the realistic dialogue and slow pacing make it seem at times like The Wire instead of a Kevin Smith horror film about Christian whackos. Most importantly, it never gives way to formula. Any time an obvious space opens in the plot, Smith closes it and throws the narrative through a window. Red State does what many current horror movies don’t: keep you wondering what happens next. It’s refreshing, as is its message: A nation of polar opposites doesn’t mean a nation of good and bad, but a nation of bad and worse.

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