Kevin Smith’s New American Nightmare
How Red State revives and transcends 1970s American transgressive horror
Spoiler Warning: In its analysis, this essay deconstructs key narrative points from throughout the duration of Red State. Consequently, it is not recommended to be read by those wishing to preserve any surprises inherent in a viewing of the film.
Adam Simon’s documentary The American Nightmare (2000) posits that the wave of new American horror emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s was created principally by a new breed of firebrand directors anxious about such world affairs as the war in Vietnam, racial equality, Cold War politics and the oil crisis, eager to express their rage through increasingly raw and confrontational representations of horror in the cinema.
The genre has shifted considerably since then, and such rage has manifested itself more recently in less transgressive, often more overtly political cinematic forms – for instance, Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) and Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007). Satire has also been used effectively, as with In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) and Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010). But the direct use of – to employ some post-9/11 newspeak – ‘shock and awe’ as a mechanism for expressing political rage on film is one that has resurfaced in the form of Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011).
Smith’s film functions similarly to the grab bag of titles offered in Simon’s documentary, and it exists very much in the same world as those films. Functioning as fringe horror in its early stages – tackling the terrors wrought by extreme thinking spawning extreme action – it metamorphoses into something very unexpected as it continues. The running thread, however, is the same kind of anger that Simon identifies as spawning that ‘60s/‘70s American horror cycle. It is evident that Smith’s seething rage transcends good taste, generic expectations and even a lot of cinematic conventions to yield a product that is refreshingly raw and scathing while never directly damning – that he leaves to his audience. Yet its directness is greater than that of its antecedents, adopting a subject matter that is not a shadow of issues at stake but their direct reflection.
Themes are established in the film’s opening movement. We are introduced to the Five Points Church, a pastiche of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church so overt that it even quotes that sect’s mantra “God hates fags”. Characters, themes and narrative threads are presented with an overt efficiency that builds anticipation and dread. The allegation that the Five Points Church is responsible for the murder of a local gay teen is enough to convince us of their homicidal tendencies. Lusty teenage boys, the trio at the core of the film’s opening horror salvo, are set on a course destined to punish them for following their sexual urges. And a classroom debate over the value of the first and second amendments to the US Constitution sews Smith’s agenda squarely on his sleeve. The movement culminates in the abduction of teens Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), confirming suspicions about the Church’s desire to express its first amendment rights through its second.
The next section, Pastor Abin Cooper’s (Michael Parks) lengthy sermon, sets the opposing view to the boys’ liberal teacher, but it damns the Five Points congregation through its repeated cuts back to the victims of the Church’s righteous indignation. We see Jared freaking out in a box to his predicament, the horrors of his intended fate made manifest by the vicious execution of another abductee. We see Travis and Billy Ray cower in the basement as the body of that nameless victim becomes their company. Without these interjections, without the perpetual insistence of Jared’s panicked breathing on the soundtrack, the sequence could be a documentary snapshot of any zealously right wing mass. The construction of the sequence – all competently handheld camerawork and audio mixed to sound like an unsweetened production track – screams newsreel from any flagship current affairs show in the days when they deserved the honour of that title.
An interlude occurs next that takes the film into Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) territory. It depicts terrified victims tormented beyond the bounds of conventional screen etiquette, their plaintive cries falling on deaf ears as they quickly discover the only road to survival is to (uncharacteristically) fight back with the same venom and ferocity being set upon them. Or, at an exceedingly lucky pinch, flee. A question hangs as this rapid-fire bridge concludes: will they be able to run hard enough and fast enough to win the empty redemption of Hooper’s heroine, or does Craven’s nihilistic fate await them?
In its second half the film does an utter volte-face, eschewing traditional horror motifs in favour of a transgressive Mexican stand-off. Here, any last trace of horror is clung to only in the ferocity of the gunplay depicted, and Smith flings the sort of narrative turnarounds seen in such films as Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) about the screen with gay abandon. Rescue the hero figure? Let’s try forcing him violently into the background, lifting his profile in what passes for a crucial plot turn, then off both him and any prospect of said thread materialising through traditional cause and effect. Establish a buddy cop movie (in John Goodman’s ATF Special Agent Joseph Keenan and Kevin Pollak’s ATF Special Agent Brooks) and kill half of it off after a snatch of minutes – mid-sentence.
It is in this phase that the film seeks to shock at every turn, but these are not shocks for their own sake. They are designed to shake the audience out of any last sense of complacency it might foolishly have been clinging to by this stage in the proceedings, to remind it that the only rule is that there are no rules. On this count, it is surprisingly disappointing that Smith is prepared to spare the only truly innocent characters in his dark fable – those children in the cult still too young to decide for themselves if it really is a righteous path – but then perhaps that is essential to his point. That we are wicked, one and all, save for the truly innocent. (The taint, actions and fate of Stephen Root’s aptly christened Sheriff Wynan support this reading.) Smith is a faithful Catholic – is this the message he takes from his faith? Or does faith play no part in a narrative that goes to great lengths to rationalise all mysteries? Cooper is damned to his own Sodom and Gomorra, imprisoned by the state he railed against and liable to be butt-fucked on a daily basis, but are the children forever tainted? Is the Five Points Church dead or sleeping?
(An earlier draft of Smith’s screenplay purportedly refused to play ball with a rational view of the universe, depicting a Rapture that spares none but Keenan – and even his fate is ambiguous. It is a directness that, unlike the completed film, would have worked against the power of Smith’s passion.)
We then come to another lift from Psycho in the form of a prolonged epilogue in which suited experts dissect any hanging ambiguities. Smith’s use of this scene to give Keenan a platform to proselytise goes towards excusing its duration, and his opportunity to expound his own beliefs at length effectively balances Cooper’s earlier sermon. It is a counterpoint but not to find balance – Keenan’s views exist as the final word, as an allegedly objective but ultimately righteous overview of events. His world-weary ATF agent is designed as the film’s Voice of Reason, and Goodman’s exhausted delivery lends his character’s views a calmness that translates as reasonableness.
Smith’s self-distribution of Red State has backfired on him, with the film receiving two exceedingly brief runs on US screens. (A week on one screen, and much later a single simultaneous exhibition on a number of screens.) Its prospects for building an audience are better beyond its home shores, but given its fierce criticisms of right wing Christianity and a state that readily embraces self-armament as a right equal to free speech, it is likely to play better in foreign territories anyway. With luck it will join the ranks of earlier American nightmares in the hearts of cult film aficionados through revivals and a second existence on home video. It is simultaneously a harsh inquisition on morality itself and an affirming demolition of cinema from which freer forms of filmic expression might arise.