More than halfway through my horror-a-thon (I wish I’d chosen a better name for this), and today’s movie was the Kevin Smith-helmed Red State. The controversy around of how this got distributed is almost more interesting than the film itself. Distributors attending the Sundance screening felt cheated because Smith announced he was never intending to shop it around for distribution deals – he was going to tour it himself (it is, after all, a film festival, not a movie convention booth). The resulting media furore labelled Smith as an imploding liar, and even bizarrely compared him to the movie’s central character – er, a hateful extremist gun nut preacher.
Guess they were too busy wanking off to cash cow numbers to have sat down and actually watched the film, then…
…Which stars a typically Smith-esque cast of thoroughly unlikable characters – some more so than others. Unnamed Southern State high-schoolers Jarod (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) respond to a group sex ad by a local woman (Melissa Leo). They soon realise this wasn’t what it seemed when the beer she’s plying them with is laced with some kind of pretty powerful sedative (so powerful that it managed to get into bottles she’d just opened while handing it to them?). They wake up and Jarod is in a cage in a local church – one that has a reputation for being frizzy cunting twatmoustache bastards who spend their days protesting gay people’s funerals. We’re then treated to a long-arse deliberately boring hellfire, homophobic, finger-pointing sermon from Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), and some disturbingly pleasant banter among the congregation as if nobody’s aware that clingfilm-ing an innocent gay man to a cross and shooting him at the top of the skull is the same as a church bake sale.
The rest of the movie plays out in what appears to be real time, when a scuffle ensues and some people are shot dead. It’s not so much a horror than it is an action thriller, but that doesn’t make me dislike it. I will say that, as a horror fan, there’s always some weird twisted part of your brain that’s curious about what sort of on-screen violence at which you’re going to be peering through your fingers, but the villains are so utterly hateful and despicable, and their real-life counterparts (they’re not the WBC) so hateful and despicable, that you’re rooting for no violence at all, for the kids (even though they’re horny, entitled little creeps) to escape unscathed.
Smith’s script touches on culturally-relevant issues (which I didn’t think he had any interest in doing): religious extremism, domestic terrorism, sexual repression as a weapon, homophobia, gun control, freedom of speech abuse, and ineffectual law enforcement. That’s a lot to cover in less than 90 minutes, but he manages to stick a finger in each pie (why does that phrase sound so sleazy?) without sacrificing too much.
But what takes us out of the horror style and clogs the pacing a bit is the addition of a second storyline, about an ATS Agent (John Goodman, who provides the film’s best performance), who’s ordered to investigate the church’s compound on a possible series of firearm violations. While the commentary is interesting, it just adds an unnecessary layer (irrelevant to the religious extremism themes), and takes the action away from the cat-and-mouse chase in the church. What’s odd is that his story starts in the early hours of the morning following the kidnapping, so I’m wondering how much chasing there’s been in the multiple hours between getting kidnapped/drugged and the ATS storyline beginning. It felt like this was added just to give the film a proper ending.
Because of all this, characters are a wee bit paper-thin, and it feels like the movie baits us into pastor-esque finger-pointing and keeps switching the target on us; do we feel sorry for the pervy little kids? How about the church’s children, who didn’t do anything, or the pastor’s granddaughter Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), who’s trying to save them, but doesn’t utter a word of remorse for the part she’s played in murdering innocent people? The church’s members – the pastor especially – are just so thoroughly evil I was hoping that there would be an pansexual task force using the power of interracial orgies to implode their tiny brains to smithereens.
The execution of the themes is arguably a little heavy-handed, but I think that’s needed here. It’s a welcome commentary on how the WBC and others of their ilk have been exploiting a broken constitutional system for far too long (“guns? free
hate speech? sign us up…for JESUS!”), and nobody’s been shouting out a consequence of their horrific influence at equal volume. People like them are a vile, repugnant waste of oxygen, and we need more voices countering their attempts to legitimatise their bigoted, misinformed, and damaging views.
Maybe you can call this porn for forward-thinking, global individuals. Because the scariest thing about this horror is that these hellfire-preaching, homophobic, intolerant, gun-wanking psychos might seem like caricatures, but they exist. That’s terrifying enough.