Name: Red State
Release Date: 2011
Writer: Kevin Smith
Director: Kevin Smith
Michael Angarano: Travis
Michael Parks: Abin Cooper
Deborah Aquila: Mrs. Vasquez
Nicholas Braun: Billy-Ray
Ronnie Connell: Randy
Kaylee DeFer: Dana
Patrick Fischler: Agent Hammond
John Goodman: Joseph Keenan
Kevin Pollak: ASAC Brooks
Joey Figueroa: Route 9 Friend
Kyle Gallner: Jarod
Anna Gunn: Travis’ Mother
Matt L. Jones: Deputy Pete
John Lacy: Travis’ Father
Catherine McCord: News Reporter
Alexa Nikolas: Jesse
Stephen Root: Sherrif Wynan
Cooper Thornton: Plastic Wrap Man
Betty Aberlin: Abigail
Run-Time: 88 mins.
Studio: Lions Gate
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
With his 1994 directorial debut “Clerks,” writer/director Kevin Smith nimbly (and hilariously) tapped into the zeitgeist of GenX America, chronicling the adventures of two Twenty-something wage slaves toiling in dead-end retail jobs with little to no idea where life was taking them. Nonetheless, they knew that something — anything — had to be better and it might be around the next bend — or after they clocked off at a convenience store in suburban New Jersey.
For those of us who were in our early to middle-twenties when the film (shot in black-and-white and on a shoestring budget) debuted, it was like looking into the mirror. Smith’s clerks, Dante and Randall, reflected the uncertainty we all felt as we either left college behind for the working world or lived out an extended adolescence in some netherworld that was not quite adulthood but clearly not childhood either.
That Smith told his stories in a hyperverbal fashion in dialogue layered with heaping helpings of poop, drugs and sex jokes, and laced with references to Star Wars and comic books, only endeared him to us all the more. And the films’ settings — a suburban New Jersey filled with shopping malls, tract homes and long boozy nights — were in a world recognizably our own. He’s dubbed that fantasyland, which boasts its own continuity and recurring characters, the “Askewniverse,” named for his early View Askew production company.
In short, Smith was the first GenXer to hit it big in Hollywood. He’d be our Scorcese, just with a serious video games jones and an obsession with the F-Word.
In the nearly twenty years since, Smith has pursued a varied career as a filmmaker. He’s made some great movies (“Chasing Amy” and “Dogma“), some good movies (“Mallrats“), some truly awful movies (“Jersey Girl“) and several that make you wonder why he bothered at all (“Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and, why God, why, “Clerks II“).
He’s dabbled in cartoons with an animated version of “Clerks“, undertaken popular spoken-word tours and immersed himself in comic books — both as a creator and the co-owner of Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, a comic shop on his home turf of Red Bank, N.J.
In recent years, Smith has taken to Twitter and social media with a passion, launching a podcast with longtime comedic foil Jason Mewes (the “Jay” half of the long-running stoner Laurel & Hardy team of Jay & Silent Bob) and becoming an outspoken and occasionally obscene auteur of the medium.
And that’s how I learned about “Red State.” Burned by some of his past outings, it’s no understatement to say that I approached the movie with no small amount of trepidation.
But that didn’t stop me from firing it up on Netflix the other night where Smith, who sparked a Sundance bidding war but nonetheless decided to self-distribute the film — has found a home for his 88-minute meditation on organized religion and the violence of contemporary America.
In short, it’s a revelation and a potent reminder that Smith, like many filmmakers, is at his best when his work is its most personal.
The film opens with a recognizably Smithian premise: three bored teenagers, somewhere in Middle America, are cruising online for sex and setting up what the believe is a threesome with a seriously freaky girl. The tryst arranged, the young men find themselves in front of a decrepit trailer on a nearly abandoned country road (Horror Movie Alert: something hideous is about to happen). Their host is a woman whose teen/adolescent years are well behind her.
Courtesy of some drugged beer, the movie takes a left-turn and they soon find themselves in the clutches of a terrifying fundamentalist sect that considers the real-life Westboro Baptist Church — notorious for its homophobic protests of military and other funerals — too lightweight for them.
The sect is led by a charismatic preacher, Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks (“Kill Bill, Vols 1 and 2“). Parks is mesmerizing, bringing a realistic fanaticism to a man who believes he has the duty to not only oppose same-sex relationships but to kill homosexuals as well. One of the film’s most unsettling moments comes early in our introduction to Cooper. He oversees the execution of a gay man, wrapped in clingfilm and lashed to a cross, as Cooper’s flock prays and silently mouths hymns.
As evidenced by his 1999 outing, “Dogma,” which Smith billed as his own lover’s quarrel with the Catholic Church, the director has a particular affinity for questions of faith and the actions we take — no matter how horrifying — in the name of that faith.
Those questions are woven throughout “Red State,” the title even a reflection of Bush II era evangelical Christianity and the increasing polarization of the national political dialogue hastened by the emergence of Fox News and other partisan outlets.
The Branch Davidian/David Koresh undertones of Parks’ Cooper are given an added jolt by John Goodman. The former “Roseanne” star, who’s become a versatile character actor as age descends, plays a veteran U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent given the charge of seving a warrant on Cooper and his congregation.
Goodman’s Agent Joe Keenan is a decent guy who’s a little weary and nearing retirement. He doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his pension. This means, naturally, that everything will (and does) go to hell in a handbasket. And the movie’s final act finds Goodman launching a Branch Davidian-style raid against Cooper’s heavily fortified and heavily armed compound.
Nearly the entire congregation is killed in the ensuing firefight. And total carnage is only averted when mysterious trumpet calls that the deranged Pastor Cooper believes are a sign of the apocalypse, bring it to a halt. The real reason for the trumpet peals is far more mundane and hilarious. But you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
But there are moments of clarity as Goodman tries to avert what will surely be a slaughter, only to find his efforts rebuffed by his superiors, who fear a repeat of Waco and give Goodman’s Keenan a truly gut-wrenching order. And, inside the compound, a young woman realizes the insanity of her position and tries to work to get herself and young children out of the compound.
The final reflection of our topsy-turvy politics comes when the cult’s survivors, residents of Patriot Act America, find themselves declared enemy combatants and are spirited away, without trial, to maximum-security prisons.
Though Smith harbors clear disdain for the Rev. Cooper and his band of homophobes, the federal government doesn’t fare much better. With the exception of Goodman’s Joe Keenan, agents of the government are either heartlessly bureaucratic or laughably incompetent. It’s also clear that Smith is nervous about living in a society where habeas corpus rights are barely worth the paper on which they’re printed.
At its heart, “Red State” is really about the battles, external and internal, between Goodman’s Joe Keenan and Parks’ Abin Cooper. The two are really the only characters who hold the viewers’ attention and interest. The three teens who are catalysts of tragedy are interchangeable and, with few exceptions, the glazed-over believers in Cooper’s cult are mostly anonymous.
Smith recently announced that, after “Red State,” he plans to make one more film and then retire from directing. If that’s true, then that’s a shame. Nearing middle-age and seemingly freed from the constraints of the “Askewniverse,” Smith seems to have his voice as a social critic, using his films to hold a mirror up to the extremes of contemporary America and asking us to consider the course we’re taking as a culture.
And right now, we could use more such independent voices.