(RNS) 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 profane rants in 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 against a 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.
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.
The audience is introduced to Cooper (Matt Jones) 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.
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). 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.
And that is precisely what makes “Red State” so horrifying.
While the graphic violence is shocking—including a church sanctuary execution of a gay man—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.
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 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. Smith’s film is masterfully unique, with a plot and execution unlike any film in recent memory.
It is also an articulate and deeply faithful cautionary tale about the dangers in believing our own goodness to the detriment of others.
“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 standing by and doing nothing while horror unfolds, Smith warns, is the same as condoning it.