Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Red State




Film: Red State

Director: Kevin Smith

Starring: Michael Parks, John Goodman, Michael Angarano

Written by: Kevin Smith



I imagine that the two main public reactions to the idea of the creator of such verbose yet straight-scaring comedies as Clerks, Mallrats, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno switching gears and coming out with a horror film about a murderous version of the real-life homophobic troll preacher Fred Phelps have been morbid curiosity and outright dismissal.  My own curious reaction to the proposal was a bit kinder.  Kevin Smith has mixed blood and religion before, and 1999’s Dogma was great.  I imagined Red State would be a serious, bloodier and less fantastic version of that film.  Maybe the Phelps surrogate would chase deviants through flickering florescent hallways and dispatch the unlucky with gory panache, but the ideas behind the darkness would be sound.  While I was very right about the film’s quality ‒ Red State is amazing ‒ I was fairly wrong about the premise.

The most important thing to note about Red State is that, despite all hype, this isn’t really a horror movie.  Sure, there’s blood and death and chases through those dimly lit subterranean passages, but most of the action would be considered G rated by gore geeks.  What’s interesting is that most of the real horror in Red State happens after it abandons all slasher pretense and becomes a story of domestic terrorism, a game of cops and cultists.  At this point, every character ‒ besides maybe the dirty white boys who get lured Porky’s style into the madness, and a Daisy Duke cult defector ‒ is laid bare as monstrous.

Despite expectations, Kevin Smith doesn’t turn Fred Phelps into Freddy Krueger; if anything he turns him into David Koresh.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a lot more frightening.  This is entirely because the villain isn’t played as a frothing redneck caricature.  Instead, we get a calculating, charming fiend.  Michael Parks is just brilliant in the role of Mr. Phelps-Koresh, a character who can defy filmmaking logic and turn a long, long sermon about the just malevolence of God into the film’s centerpiece.  Parks is so goddamn charismatic in the role that he makes you understand how rational people could blindly follow such psychotic demagogues.

John Goodman heads up the opposing side, serving as the head of the ATF force sent to subdue the cult with extreme prejudice.  Let me get this out of the way: John Goodman looks old.  Here, he looks like he’s had the life sucked out of him, which works in the context of the story.  His agent is a low-rung agent who gets hideous orders from his superiors, and though he may be the story’s most admirable character, he becomes a monster as he struggles to obey them and keep his humanity. In the resulting firefight, there arises a fascinating question of whom, if anyone, the audience is supposed to get behind.  The fact that Smith can elicit even the faintest possibility of human sympathy toward a cult of murderous, bigoted zealots is remarkable.

It’s got its flaws ‒ the most notable being an inclination toward claustrophobic shakey-cam action shots ‒ but appropriately enough, Red State is easily Kevin Smith’s most magnetic, dynamic film since Dogma.  You know what?  I’m going to go even further and say that Red State may be the best film that Kevin Smith has ever made.


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