Guest post by Anastasia McAteer
When I turned on Red State (Smith, 2011), my husband, the author of this blog, warned me: “It’s a horror movie. You might be scared.” I wanted to give it a try anyway, since I love Kevin Smith’s films. And it turns out, it is not a horror movie at all – in fact, it’s nearly impossible to describe, except to call it perhaps a sermon on the dark side of human nature and the reality of systemic evil. Smith himself describes it as “a Quentin Tarantino flick through the eyes of the Coen brothers with a bit of Kevin Smith mixed in” (a lofty aim, and not quite reached, but certainly helpful to know going in). One thing’s for sure: it is not a comedy in the vein of Smith’s earlier work, for which he famously mixed crass humor and coarse language to somehow make us laugh and think.
The film opens with a mother and son driving past a funeral that is being picketed by homophobic hate-mongers. There follows a brief scene in the son’s classroom where the teacher leads a discussion about first amendment rights and the unsavory way they can be expressed (using the hate group – which turns out to be a local church called Five Points – as the prime example). That scene closes with a seemingly throwaway question “And what is the second amendment?”, to which a smirking student answers: “We get guns.” This actually reveals the power of the villains in this film: they have freedom to express their beliefs and the right to bear arms to back them up.
The son and his friends answer an ad for a booty call with a local woman, and as the first act continues we believe we are headed into traditional horror territory: the teens are drugged, caged and tied up, and taken to the Five Points compound. We quickly realize that this cult does more than picket funerals – it is causing them. But rather than descend into torture porn or cat and mouse, Smith stops the action and allows the cult leader, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) to preach for a good ten minutes or so about the sinfulness of America. His words were all too familiar to me – I have heard many similar sermons in regular old churches, not to mention certain political platforms – and throughout his tirade you couldn’t escape the twin visuals of a cloaked figure attached to the life-size cross on the stage (which turns out to be a man they will execute), and one of the teens locked in a cage on the floor. To further disturb, several children are scattered throughout the congregation (they are removed before any killing happens)…but like I said, as a kid, I heard plenty of talk about the evils of sinners, the fear of God, and the doom of our country. It’s not at all uncommon to have children exposed to this kind of talk, creating a frightening image of God in their formative years.
Anytime Kevin Smith talks about religion, my ears perk up. His Dogma (1999) is one of my all-time favorite movies, perfectly capturing the jumbled mess of organized religion while breaking through with moments of such perfect clarity about true faith that one can’t help but feel we have peeked behind the veil. I know Smith has belief in his bones, and while Dogma simply made fun of people who misuse religion, Red State is a brutal attack on those who would carry out evil in the name of God (a notable exchange between two characters observing the church’s giant cross from outside its gates: “How much you think a cross like that costs?” Answer: “You mean in dollars or common sense?”).
However, as the first act closes, the film changes gears significantly, bringing in a new plot line involving an ATF raid on the compound. Suddenly we find ourselves in a suspense-action thriller (though it is still horrific in many ways), as the ATF agents carry on an hour long fire-fight with the cult members. Smith rachets up the ante: the agent in charge, Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) is given direct orders to eliminate the entire church, as they have been classified a “domestic terrorist cell”. Keenan is conflicted about these orders and when they are carried out, at times brutally, we are shocked. We find ourselves connecting the actions of the government, in blindly dispatching all it sees as “Enemies” without distinguishing them as individuals (leader, believer, child, hostage), to the actions of the cult which also indiscriminately executed persons that it understood to be evil. How many times in the last ten years have we heard some version of, “We will root out and eliminate this evil”?
Joe Keenan sums up this disturbing reality with a story at the end of the film:
My grandma, on my mother’s side, she had these two dogs, pure bloodhounds. Both came up the same litter….Gentlest dogs you’d ever care to meet. So anyway, Thanksgiving of my ninth year these two old dogs are trailing me around ’cause they know the score: I’m a animal lover who never finishes his supper. So right before I get up from the table, I toss these two old timers a turkey leg attached to a hunk of cartilage, and it was like they’d never met. They went at each other so ferociously, all tooth and claw and jugular. They forgot anything they ever had in common and scrapped like that discard decided between their stayin’ and dying.
Smith makes abundantly clear to us the dangers of forgetting our common humanity, of seeing the Other as all threat and nothing like us. The preacher makes his case about how his flock differs from the rest of the world, destined for hell; there is no need to explain to the audience why we eliminate terrorists, as we have all lived in that reality since 2001.
Further troubling is the fact that the innocents – especially those who attempt to do right and help others – are mostly slaughtered, and the perpetrators of the violence – the masterminds behind it all – are not. This speaks to the complicated theological truth of systemic evil in the world, eloquently explained by Walter Wink in his book The Powers that Be and its followups. Wink suggests that the most insidious form of evil in our society – the principalities and powers to which St Paul refers – are found not in the human heart, but in the corporations, governments, and churches that control people. This is clearly on display in Red State, as embodied by Five Points with its brainwashed followers, and the US government with its blind obeying of orders (even when the agents know they are wrong). Wink argues that we have “enshrine[d] the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently.”
But I think there is a glimmer of hope behind all the carnage and despair of this film. Many viewers will take away a simplistic reading, “Oh, Smith just hates religion.” I disagree. For one thing, his original ending had divine justice being enacted on the cult leader (this was cut due to budget constraints). But even as the film stands, Smith clearly states that it is belief that is the problem, not God. Keenan’s dog story ends, “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.” Recently my pastor posed the question to us: “Do you have faith in your system of beliefs, or in God?” Or as Smith himself says in the final lines of Dogma:
Rufus: Why, Bethany Sloane, are you saying you believe?
Bethany: No. But I have a good idea.
I don’t think this is the same as saying “you can have faith in anything, just have faith” (though Smith also says that in Dogma, via Chris Rock’s character). To me, it means that we can adhere so strongly to a human-constructed regimen of beliefs that we make it into a false god. Humility and true faith go hand in hand. You can’t have faith in the living God without accepting that it is a fluid thing, a growing thing, something that will evolve throughout your life as you experience more of God’s world – as you encounter more of the Other and see the Image of God therein. Beliefs tend to be static and need defending; faith is that seemingly naive approach that speaks truth to power, loves without fear, and willingly lays down its life.
This film is a huge departure for Kevin Smith: it is not funny, it is not crass, and Jay and Silent Bob do not belong here. It is very violent and full of the colorful language we expect from him, but it also reveals deeply felt convictions about religion, politics, human nature, and the state of our country. Red State isn’t just a reference to the redneck characters, it is about the blood and anger boiling over in our current climate. We live, it sometimes seems, in a permanent state of red that way. It is up to those of us who want a better world to buck the systems that seek to trap us in anger and fear, and live instead by the love that conquers all.