Ironically, on election day in Ontario (where I live), I went to see Red State, a film very much dealing with democratic rights: freedom of speech, to bear arms, religious beliefs.
The story is fairly simple and takes place over about 24 hours. In Somewhere USA, three teenage boys meet an older woman online and arrange to meet to have sex. Instead, the meet-up is a trap where the boys are captured by the Five Points Church, a Fred Phelps-esque family of religious zealots and gun nuts. When one of the boys tries to escape, it triggers a hostage situation and stand-off with ATF agents, led by John Goodman. During the stand-off, things go from bad to worse to holy shit.
To get this out of the way—yes, this is written and directed by Kevin Smith (Clerk, Chasing Amy, Cop Out). While Smith has been dismissed as nothing more than a purveyor of dick-and-fart jokes, this films shows he is a serious filmmaker and draws on his strengths:
- Whip-smart dialogue
- The ability to juggle a large cast of characters without confusing the viewer
- Having a number of different story elements collide and intertwine to send characters further and further into a meat grinder (played for humour when it’s Dante Hicks, but not here)
The tone and feel of the film is nothing like Smiths’ comedic works. This is a dark, bold, scary, chilling film. While there are a few laughs, it’s gallows humour. The acting is top-notch from its leads to its bit parts. While one good performance is the result of an actor, when it’s the cast it’s because a director yanked those performances out of them. The pacing and tension are nail-biting. The film’s visual style, thanks to David Klein (who got his start on Smith’s debut Clerks., which is usually mocked for it stationary camera), draws you into a world of deepening madness.
One criticism I have is that the beginning of the film is slow—another Smith hallmark—but is necessary to establish the three boys as genuine, sexually curious young men who urge each other on instead of taking a step back to think about what they’re doing. We all knew guys like this. Maybe you were one of them. This time establishes them not as stereotypes out of Porky’s, but real guys.
Which makes what happens to them all the more difficult to watch. I won’t give anything anyway, but a true strength of this film is you do not know what is going to happen scene to scene, moment to moment. Unlike the predictable “final girl” formula of horror movies, Smith breaks a lot of narrative rules here. The character you’re following who enters a scene might not make it through alive.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Devil’s Rejects, the low budget of this films adds to its look. Its practical sets and natural lighting ground you in the reality of the situation (rather than million dollar effects reminding you that you’re watching a movie). And for a horror movie, there is not a lot of gore, but the little that is used is shocking, violent and jarring. Instead, the horror is how easily violence comes. And how unfair and random it can be. (Several times, a woman behind me shouted “No!” in a choked voice at acts of horrific, senseless brutality.) But do not mistake this for torture porn. There is a story here. These are real characters. Smith is making a point. The sound of the gunshot that kills someone—and the fact of who fired and why—punches you harder in the gut than the half second of blood you see.
But the brutality committed is not just by the Five Points Church. Smith certainly has a bullseye aimed at Christian fundamentalists who feel one Bible verse (Leviticus 20:13) trumps another (Exocus 20:13). But the ATF are hardly the heroes here—perhaps another swipe at another shade of Republicanism. The orders and actions of Goodman and his team become equally brutal and upsettling.
And perhaps that is what makes this film so effective as true, disquieting horror. There are no heroes. There is no one we can latch on to as our moral compass. Faced with an impossible situation, all the characters simply react out of panic, not thinking about what they are doing in a second-by-second fight to keep living in the vain hope salvation will come. (And let’s just say the word “salvation” was intentionally chosen as a mini-spoiler.) While the will to live is noble, doing so at the expense of your friends or those you are sworn to protect provokes a disquieting realization about human nature.
And if there is a message in Red State, one echoed by John Goodman’s character in a story he recounts, it’s that while Christianity holds us up to be superior to the beasts, in truth we’re no better.