People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.
Kevin Smith’s Red State is a deeply uncomfortable movie. It’s not the kind of film that I feel any desire to ever revisit in the future, or to see with my friends. The thing is though; it also feels like a necessary movie. It feels like a movie made by someone deeply terrified and outraged about something, and all the violence, all the brutality, isn’t there to draw a blood-thirsty audience dull from the consumption of torture porn movies where the value of the ticket is measured by how gross it makes you feel (if it attracts that audience, it’s a bonus, but it doesn’t feel like it’s Smith’s intention) – instead it serves a purpose.
The story is fairly simple: three Texan high school students set out to get laid. Instead of a foursome with Melissa Leo, they are drugged and kidnapped by an evangelical extremist group led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). The group captures, tortures and eventually kills people who do not conform to their sexual morals. In the beginning of the movie, we first see them protesting at the funeral of a gay man who was tortured to death, and there is an indication that this isn’t an unusual occurrence in the small Texan town. The situation escalates when a deputy gets suspicious about noises coming out the compound and is killed – the pastor has material to blackmail the local Sheriff, but he decides to call the ATF since he suspects that Cooper has been hoarding weapons. This leads to a fire fight between some officers of the ATF (headed by John Goodman) and the group, and Goodman’s superiors decide to designate the enemy as domestic terrorists which means that he is obliged to go in and kill everything that moves, even though there are children and hostages within the compound. Ultimately, a surreal moment brings the fighting to an end, and Goodman decides to disobey his orders so that the remaining members of the group are arrested instead of shot. It’s too late for the kids we followed into the story though.
The ending is what makes Red State unusual. It almost feels like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, just executed better. Smith forces the audience into Cooper’s church, puts us beside him on the altar and into the rows between his followers, makes us listen to his sermon of hatred in which he justifies the killing of people – and many of these arguments we’ve heard before, sadly, maybe worded a little bit differently to make them more acceptable but it’s the same hideous argument to justify homophobia. The point of Red State isn’t just the portrayal of a fanatical violent group, however, it’s questioning the mechanism that makes Cooper’s followers willing to execute the violence he preaches – the communion he achieves by making them share in the ritualistic killing of people – and Smith contrasts this with Goodman’s Keenan on the battlefield, receiving orders that he violently disagrees with over the phone yet executing them and causing the death of innocents. The film questions authority – it doesn’t in any way sympathise with Cooper’s group, but it poses the argument that hierarchies and chain-of-commands that make questioning authority impossible are responsible for the destruction of lives. A woman inside the compound attempts to save the children, but she has no authority, so her plan is destroyed both by the hierarchy within the group and by the orders Keenan receives on the outside, from superiors who regard the complete destruction of the group, regardless of how many lives it may cost, as the easy solution to a complex problem. If Cooper survives, they would have to question the circumstances that made him possible, examine a political and institutional culture that doesn’t discredit his hateful ideology, policies that allowed the group to obtain an arsenal of weapons, an ineffectual police force that didn’t register the connection between the homophobic violence and the group. By disobeying the order and keeping Cooper alive, Keenan also denies the expected catharsis to the viewers (and perhaps it even questions the instinct of the viewer to desire violence as an easy solution, to see the disgusting villain dead) – there is no explosion that grants the kind of revenge history never provided as there is in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – instead the villain lives on as a reminder of things gone wrong.
2011, directed by Kevin Smith, featuring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, Stephen Root, Kerry Bishé, Melissa Leo, Anna Gunn.
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