Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are among the most hated groups in America. Known for ignorantly picketing the funerals of soldiers with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IED’s,” and “Thank God for 9/11,” its easy to see why the group is so vehemently despised. Writer/Director Kevin Smith takes on this hatred by villainizing a similar group of religious extremists in his newest, perhaps most mature film to date; Red State.
Kevin Smith is best known for a filmography of indie-slacker gems like Clerks, comedic satires like Dogma, and more notoriously, horrendous flops like Jersey Girl. After what has been a decline in taste and standards, I’d written off Smith’s career as a director, fearing that he’d permanently traded in his once smartly satirical view of the world for a more sophomoric approach to filmmaking. Now, there is nothing wrong with low-brow humor and ridiculousness, but when a filmmaker neglects to blend any intelligent design into the humor, their films (and their dwindling audience) tend to suffer. With Red State however, Smith takes on his most serious subject with an aggressive, sometimes unrelenting examination of the horror surrounding people who deal in naive absolutes. It’s satire in its darkest form.
Red State creates its own fictional version of the Westboro Baptist called Five Points Church. It’s apparent that Five Points is modeled after Westboro, but at one point in the film John Goodman’s character, ATF Agent Keenan remarks that unlike the showy zealotry of Westboro and Phelps, the Cooper family who make up Five Points are gun crazy zealots. Five Points is led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a gospel preaching, homophobic racist who leads his cult of worshipers down a righteous path of doom. Parks depiction of Abin, as a fast talking, always calm and optimistic preacher and family man is haunting. As the ATF takes down his small church, Abin peacefully quotes scripture among a backdrop hailstorm of bullets, firing his own semi-automatic weapon between verses. Abin’s wife, the blindly devoted matriarch of the clan is played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo. With dark, pits of eyes, she turns from smiling devotee to spiteful torturer with the slightest of transition.
The details of the ATF’s involvement with Cooper and his church revolve around a cache of weapons the church has stockpiled. A cross between Waco and Ruby Ridge, the agents raid Cooper’s compound in a take no prisoners attempt at a media blackout. Here is where the film swayed a little unevenly. Starting out as a dark, tension building breakdown of Cooper, his church, his followers and their wicked ways, Smith successfully established a realistic, and intelligently crafted horror film. Once the ATF got involved, the horror took a backseat to the action, and the pacing turned from quiet suspense to in-your-face shoot-em-up. Red State still works as an intensely successful film psychologically, however the third act is a bit rushed.
There have been all sorts of films dealing with cults, but what makes Red State so unique is the closeness its cult has to an existing group in the US. Sure, Westboro aren’t gun-toting zealots per se, yet somehow, and for reasons that are surely no mistake, Smith pit’s the hatred of the Five Points Church with our own hatred of Phelps and his church.
The horror that Smith deals with throughout Red State is the religiously entitled idolatry that fuels hatred and bigotry. While Cooper uses physical torture and humiliation to punish those he deems sinners, Phelps uses psychological torture and humiliation. There is something instinctively satisfying in watching the ATF violently take down Cooper and his clan, a conundrum of morals that Smith plays with carefully and with deliberate banality. This is what makes Red State Smith’s greatest satire to date. As much as we hate to ask, Smith forces us to assess whether we are morally any better than Cooper. It seems obvious, but when you think about it, the horror isn’t only Cooper and Phelps’ cruel hatred, but also, the fact that our own hatred can lead to such violent satisfaction.