Red State: it’s one sermon versus another

Kevin Smith’s darkly humorous horror film is spoiled by tacking on a hamfisted message about American politics.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The presidency of George W Bush will go down in history for a lot of very bad reasons. The war on terror, the electoral scandal over ‘hanging chads’ in Florida and the failure of response to Hurricane Katrina are givens, but an even more heinous part of his legacy is the way in which his ineptitude and underhandedness politicised Hollywood.

As those eight years wore on, scandal after scandal seemed to get every leftie celebrity hot under the collar, and TV, film and radio soon became flooded with their increasingly unsophisticated jibes. At first, this increased involvement seemed admirable, but their simplistic ‘Bush is an idiot’ rhetoric was painfully redundant and unfortunately started a trend which continued beyond his time in office. In particular, mainstream cinema seemed to declare open season on all of society’s ills, tackling every issue from government shiftiness to environmental policy, with similar inelegance.

All of which brings us neatly to Kevin Smith’s Red State. Smith, who is famed for such irreverent flicks as Clerks and Mallrats, has described this film as an out-and-out horror, but beneath its gruesome violence lies a stern exploration of government ethics and American morality. While Smith proceeds in a slightly less irritating fashion than most, this stab at political relevance nevertheless spoils what could have been a decent addition to his wry indie canon.

In the beginning of the film we are introduced to sexually frustrated high-schoolers Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun). Via an online chatroom, they are lured to the trailer of a mysterious woman promising beer and sex. Little do they know she is a member of a militant Christian cult who intends promptly to deliver these greasy-haired heathens to the fiery depths of hell. As the boys are reported missing, and more is unearthed about the dodgy activities of the Five Points Trinity Church, an ATF squad lead by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman) lays siege to the house, culminating in a bloody stand-off.

Despite this rather blatant premise, it all starts rather well. Combining scenes of horrific violence with his own brand of irreverent comedy, Smith evokes all the fun and thrills of a Seventies slasher B-movie. While the film’s references to the Waco disaster and infamous fundamentalist Christian group the Westboro Baptist Church are rather heavy, the way in which the tone flits between the serious and the silly creates an underlying sense that this isn’t to be taken too seriously, and we are meant to enjoy the story for what it is.

However, as the film moves towards its climax, things take a discernibly more moralistic turn. Whilst Smith provides some decent insights, the method by which he expresses them derails the entire film. Without the faintest hint beforehand, he launches upon us a preachy – ‘this is what we learned today’ – ending, which equates religious extremism with post-9/11 ‘Patriot Act’ politics. Not only does this puncture the dark humour with which he began, but it is above all a dissatisfying cop-out of an ending.

Like many of his contemporaries, Smith’s heavy-handed attempt to relate his work to the current political climate proves to be his undoing. He has always been something of a provocateur and, with his 1999 film Dogma, he displayed a keen ability to critique organised religion in a derisive yet enjoyable way. With Red State, however, he succumbs to patronising didacticism and as a result, undermines any message he may have hoped to convey.

If there is indeed a lesson to be learnt from Red State, it is to let the story speak for itself.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Red State:

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