Kevin Smith was never meant to make a horror movie. The filmmaker who, by his own estimation, made an entire career out of dick and fart jokes, was firmly ensconced in his acquired taste period when Red State released in 2011. Smith’s most recent directorial offering at the time, Cop Out, was a critical and commercial failure, and he had lost much of his luster for the process following highly publicized on-set issues with star Bruce Willis. The wide-eyed New Jersey kid who’d grown up dreaming of making it in Hollywood was finally doing what he loved, but the inspiration well had run dry. Rather than returning to his comfort zone and churning out another goofy slacker comedy, Smith did a complete 180 and emerged with the kind of resolutely dark, gritty and boundary-pushing horror flick usually delivered by some dude nobody’s ever heard of (see Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Ari Aster’s Hereditary).
Red State is considerably more low-key than Smith’s typical output, from the grainy cinematography to the somber mood and complete lack of score — typically a staple of the filmmaker’s work. There’s a sense that Smith — who often relies on bombastic, colorful and outlandish accoutrements — is scaling things back to show off what he can really do. He undoubtedly surprised even himself. We all know that Smith can tell a funny story about lovable losers having wacky adventures, but Red State is a self-contained, defiantly political take on religious fundamentalism that doesn’t pull any punches. If you were to sit down and guess the kind of story you’d least expect Kevin fucking Smith to make, it would be this. And, to his immense credit, the filmmaker more than succeeds in crafting a horror tale for the ages, one that, remarkably, hits even harder a full decade after its release given how divided we are.
The villains of Smith’s piece are the Five Points Church, led by the quietly terrifying Michael Parks in a career-best performance that, if there was any justice in the world, would’ve won every award. First glimpsed in the film’s opening moments leading a protest that recalls the infamous Westboro Baptist Church — a clear narrative inspiration who protested the film’s Sundance screening — Parks’ Pastor Abin Cooper is a bloodcurdling creation. Comfortably dressed like a kind grandfather, the character speaks in a low, creepily squeaky, southern drawl that highlights how Cooper is always in control. In fact, Sir Patrick Stewart’s white supremacist villain in Green Room was arguably influenced by Parks’ Red State performance, since he speaks in a similarly soft register but is equally intimidating.
In an interview with The Guardian, Smith revealed he was inspired to write Red State after watching footage of WBC leader Fred Phelps and thinking, “He looks like a grandfather or your favourite uncle, and he speaks with ‘Aw shucks’ homespunisms, but the content of what he’s talking about is pure fuckin’ Hitler.” Parks’ Cooper is an exact representation of this idea, confidently brought to life by the actor’s committed performance. In fact, Cooper is even referred to as “Grampa” and “Daddy” by most of his small congregation. In Red State’s standout sequence, set entirely in a dilapidated, makeshift church, Cooper’s various family members sit rapt as he delivers lengthy diatribes about how, among other things, the gays are to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in the world. Moreover, “God doesn’t love you ‘less you fear him.” Although contemptible, Cooper’s sermon is genuinely intriguing.
Smith writes meaty monologues for Parks, which take up a significant chunk of screen time in Red State, and rightly so, creating an atmosphere dripping with dread and charged with danger as the scope widens to show a figure, covered with a white sheet, attached to a giant cross in the background of the scene. Early on, viewers learn that ultra conservatives and even Nazis refuse to be associated with the Five Points Church, but it’s during Cooper’s sermon that the congregation’s true nature is painstakingly revealed. Smith is never gleeful about pulling back the curtain; he presents the church’s atrocities with little fanfare as though they’re everyday occurrences (because they are). Meanwhile, the way Cooper’s followers hang on his every word, laughing at the pastor’s goofy jokes and happily indoctrinating their children to his cause, emphasizes the true definition of worship.
Red State takes on the horror of religion in a stripped-back and frightening manner. The real terror at the film’s heart has nothing to do with knife-wielding maniacs or otherworldly ghouls — it’s purely about people who believe too strongly in the strength of their convictions and commit horrifying acts as a result. As John Goodman’s long-suffering law enforcement agent Joe Keenan reasons, there’s something inherently terrifying about people who just plain believe. The moment when an unnamed gay man is wrapped tightly in clingfilm, ball-gagged on a cross and shot in the head is bloodcurdling in its austerity. Chillingly, only the men are allowed to carry out this terrible act — Five Points is casually racist and sexist, as well as homophobic — which involves wrapping the poor guy’s head as he screams for mercy. Smith shoots the sequence tightly, crafting a claustrophobic atmosphere solidified by Kyle Gallner’s Jared watching, terrified, from a cage just below the victim. The trio of hapless teenage boys, whose horniness proves to be their downfall, is expertly cast. All three actors look young enough to be believable as desperate virgins trying to get laid, making their fates more of a gut punch.
Typically, female characters are drugged and kidnapped in horror films — but in Red State, it’s young boys looking to score alcohol by whatever means necessary, with Melissa Leo’s stoic yet clearly disturbed matriarch using the “the devil’s business” (drugged beers) to lure the trio into her trailer. The boys are subsequently left physically exposed too, as one character wears just socks and underpants, while another only has pants and the third wears his undershirt and jeans. Their relationship is neatly sketched in a series of crude exchanges, most of which are about sex — the kind Smith has long excelled at. But, when the trio damages the car that Travis (Michael Angarano) borrowed from his parents, they bicker over it; a moment of teenage immaturity, as the characters are completely unaware of the danger to come. Later, Travis scolds his buddy Billy Ray (Succession star Nicholas Braun, sporting a nifty rat tail) about being a baby, while openly weeping himself, as the duo attempts to use an exposed bone from a nearby corpse to cut through their restraints. Red State is bloody and violent but not terribly gory, giving the film a queasy air of authenticity. Crucially, too, the boys are all fair game, with each ultimately perishing.
Red State is obviously Smith’s first foray into horror (he termed it “quasi-horror”). The film was initially a massive shock to the system primarily because it doesn’t feel, really at all, like one of the director’s typical movies. The trademark Smith wit is reined in but still deployed here and there, first in the boys’ interactions and later through Goodman’s beleaguered officer. When a colleague asks, “How much you think a cross like that costs?,” Joe responds “In dollars or common sense?” The officer, whose efforts are stymied by bureaucracy but whose good intentions are always clear, chews gum open-mouthed and argues with his superior over the phone. Goodman’s voice, the only real match for Parks, booms out of the recently trimmed-down actor as he attempts to corral an impossible situation that inevitably devolves into meaningless bloodshed. Red State is a film that takes domestic terrorism more seriously than the real-life U.S. government does, and it’s empowering to see Keenan not just survive the ordeal but be promoted in the process and ensure that the Five Points Church gets no press from it — the ultimate punishment for fame-hungry fundamentalists.
Religion has long been a target of horror, all the way back to The Exorcist and The Omen, while more recent films including The Conjuring series and spinoff The Nun utilize Christianity, to varying effect, as the ultimate tool against evil. Smith shrewdly exemplifies how such beliefs are casually weaponized to hurt and even kill others. The Five Points members are victims too, of course, particularly the women and children whom young Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé, who appears on the film’s attention-grabbing poster, brandishing an assault rifle) valiantly attempts to save. They live in a compound that’s barricaded both inside and out, and once their congregation is exposed to the real world, the various members quickly start to lose their marbles. Early on in Red State, a news reporter mentions a rash of hate crimes taking place throughout the city, with gay people being targeted. It’s a throwaway comment that cleverly sets up just how much power Cooper and his deluded flock wield, right under the noses of locals like Travis’ parents, who are excitedly watching the broadcast to catch themselves driving past the most recent picketing event.
Red State boasts a starry cast, but Smith’s story is ruthlessly contained, captured with a grainy texture, and presented like a true no-budget indie horror, with bursts of shocking violence punctuating the tense atmosphere. The director frequently attaches camera rigs to his actors so that when they’re running for their lives, the audience is right there with them. The first time this technique is deployed, the camera is attached to the outside of a cage as Jared is rolled around, screaming to be let out as it slowly dawns on him that his friends probably didn’t put him in there. It’s an incredibly tactile and urgent choice in a movie with dark subject matter that is complemented rather than undercut by moments of pitch-black humor, making it clear what Smith thinks of his subjects’ religious ire (he has a difficult relationship with faith himself). Meanwhile, the director’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, shows up briefly as a member of the congregation, with the proud atheist forced to say “Amen” in what was clearly an inside joke for Smith.
Red State makes a damning case against religious fundamentalism, but Smith ensures that audiences get the last laugh, as the writer-director himself tells an imprisoned Cooper to “shut the fuck up” from one cell over, though the film’s director never actually appears onscreen. In the end, it’s the Five Points Church’s misguided belief in the encroaching end times — heralded by trumpet blasts from a group of pissed off college kids living nearby — that seals their fate. Smith admitted that although he’d always wanted to make a “grown-up” film, he couldn’t do horror because he’s “not Dario Argento” and “not John Carpenter.” Even so, the filmmaker believed that he could still “unnerve the audience.” The great triumph of Red State is that Smith managed to do both, and then some.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
Categories: 2020s, 2021 Film Essays, 2021 Horror Essays, Action, Crime, Featured, Horror