Red State Wins: Take a Bow, Silent Bob
Don't believe most of what you'll hear about Kevin Smith's new movie, Red State.
It is not an angry tirade against religion, nor is it an attack on Christianity guised as a horror flick laden with gratuitous violence.
Smith has described Red State as a horror film, and it is that, but not in the conventional Nightmare on Elm Street iteration. There is violence for sure, but nothing approaching the unrelenting bloodbath of, say, The Passion of the Christ.
In much the same way that Smith employed bathroom humor and the profane rantings of his "prophetic" characters Jay and Silent Bob to obscure the deeply spiritual message of his 1999 masterpiece Dogma, Smith uses shock-and-awe violence in Red State to bring viewers into the fullness of his commentary on the nature of belief, religious fanaticism, and insipid hatred masked as piety.
The horror of Red State is not the body count wrought by machine-gun-toting church ladies or federal agents with orders to use deadly force to empty a fortified cult compound. Rather the true horror of Smith's film is in the fundamental beliefs that give rise to such atrocities.
Smith's anger or bitterness (if it is present in this film) is righteous and reserved for worthy recipients.
The complex plot of Red State centers around the vicious rhetoric of Abin Cooper, the chillingly genteel and wholly sociopathic leader of Five Points Church, a small, family-run sect that lives on a rural compound somewhere in middle America.
The audience is introduced to Cooper (Michael Parks) and his flock as they conduct a vitriolic protest -- waving signs that read "God Hates Fags" and the like -- at the funeral of a murdered gay man.
Five Points bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life, extreme-right wing nut Fred Phelps and his abominable Westboro Baptist Church. While Smith readily admits that Westboro was the inspiration for his fictional sect, the film explicitly says that Five Points is not Westboro.
Phelps and his lot are "sewers not doers," says Agent Joseph Keenan of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (played by John Goodman in one of his finest performances on the big screen). Phelps spews hatred but he's not physically dangerous; Cooper and his congregation are stockpiling illegal firearms.
The Five Pointers believe they have a divine imprimatur to kill "sinners" for the greater good, and they reserve their most violent hatred and sadism for homosexuals, whom they blame for all of society's ills (Smith says he took Phelps' rhetoric and followed it to its logical extreme).
That is precisely what makes Red State so horrifying.
While the graphic violence is shocking -- including the execution of a gay man bound by plastic wrap to a large cross in the church sanctuary -- the most chilling moments of the film come in long sermons and monologues delivered by Cooper in his grandfatherly, folksy drawl.
Cooper quotes the same scripture and sings the same hymns that are familiar to most churchgoing Christians. But he hears something so diametrically different and demonically twisted than the vast majority of Christian believers do.
Cooper's psychotic gospel is swollen with hellfire and brimstone, rooted in the fear of a vengeful God who demands bloody retribution for the offenses of humankind.
This is not a condemnation of Christianity and its true gospel. Rather it is a powerful critique of how the real message of the Christian faith is mangled, distorted, and sacrificed on the altar of fear and loathing.
"I fear God," Abin tells his flock, in a low, gravely growl. "You better believe I fear God."
Religious fanaticism is not the only target of Smith's brutal condemnation. When a standoff between ATF agents and Five Points quickly devolves into a violent cataclysm (explicitly recalling the 1993 fiasco at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas), Smith critiques the horrors of an overreaching, inhumane government that cares more about avoiding bad press than saving the lives of innocents trapped inside the compound.
Goodman's character is the only one with a shred of decency in the entire narrative. His moral compass, although not exactly finely calibrated, still finds a true north. But not in time to prevent catastrophe from unfolding.
Red State is a thrill ride, with many twists, reversals, and surprises. Not the least of which is the appearance of an AK-47-wielding Betty Aberlin -- the actress best known as "Lady Aberlin" of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a role she played from 1968 to 2001.
Smith, 41, no doubt grew up watching sweet Lady Aberlin in the land of make-believe. (This is Aberlin's third appearance in a Smith film. She played a nun in Dogma and a Catholic school teacher in Jersey Girl.) Her turn in Red State is such a shocking departure from our childhood memories that it adds a whole other layer to the horror.
Red State is masterfully unique, with a plot and execution unlike any film in recent memory. (Take a bow, Silent Bob.)
It is also an articulate and deeply faithful cautionary tale about the dangers in believing our own goodness to the detriment of others.
"People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled," Agent Keegan says in the movie's money quote. "But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe."
Red State vividly reminds us that some of the most insipid acts of evil have been perpetrated by people who believed they were acting on the side of goodness, righteousness, and God.
And that to stand by and do nothing while horror unfolds is to condone it.
[A version of this column originally appeared via Religion News Service.]
Cathleen Falsani is Web editor and director of new media for Sojourners. She is author of the new book BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber.