RED STATE. Starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Michael Angarano. Directed by Kevin Smith. 88 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (Strong violence, sexual references and frequent coarse language).
Kevin Smith has proven to be something of a sign of contradiction, enthusing his fans and irritating his definitely-not-fans. I will opt for the fan side.
Smith used to portray himself in his films as a slacker, the famous Silent Bob. He has an offbeat sense of humour (uninhibited as well), belongs to the comics and graphic novels era (he turned 40 in 2010), is skilful in writing smart and sometimes tantalising dialogue, and doesn’t mind being rough and ready in his film-making, favouring some improvising.
This is all evident in Red State which defies easy pigeon-holing as to what genre the film is. It shifts genre from time to time which may prove disconcerting to the unwary and the unwilling, but when it is all put together (only 88 minutes), it comes out as a smart movie whether we liked it or not.
There is plenty to put us on guard. It takes on current American bigotry, especially of the conservative religious variety. Smith was a producer on a 2007 documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church which is crusadingly against the alleged decline of American morals, homosexuality being a principal target. There is an explicit reference in Red State to Westboro, claiming that the group in the movie are even more extreme. And that is what we see.
Had we not had American incidents like Waco, or memories of Jonestown, as well as Oklahoma bombers and Unibombers, we might be tempted to say that Red State is far-fetched. But...
The film does indicate in its opening minutes that these themes will be pursued but it then focuses on three high-schoolers who are sex-obsessed and use their I-Phones to check out local prostitutes. Off they go and get more than they ever bargained for. You need to see it to appreciate what happens.
Red State then switches gear into a police investigation of a car crash the boys were involved in, as was the sheriff in behaviour that his wife would not approve of.
But, the film has also switched into a story about a religious church, a group of 25 members of a family and spouses, who put their religious convictions into deadly practice – literally. The result is a police siege – with ironic comment about the way American authorities have handled siege and terrorist situations: no witnesses.
The cast is strong and makes this watchable if not believable to non-Americans who have not experienced this kind of gun-toting religious certainty and intolerance. Michael Parks gives one of his best performances as the leader of the Church, seemingly sane, a smooth preacher (and he gets the chance for a long moralising sermon about the decline of the US) but absolutely convinced of his self-discovered messianic role. Melissa Leo is excellent, as always, as his fanatical daughter. John Goodman is the agent in charge of the siege.
Kevin Smith ‘did’ religion when he was in his twenties with Dogma, a provocative satire on the church, angels and images of God. This time, there is a social and political agenda behind his satire. Satirists are often perfectionists who are enraged by the failure of society that the only way they can make their point is by the combination of savagery and spoof. Kevin Smith has done this with Red State. (There is a lot of swearing in Smith’s films, as here – however, he does use one of those four-letter sentences that are too often lazily used instead of better writing to end the film, and most audiences will find it apt, especially as it is Smith’s only cameo in Red State.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 13, 2011