It must be the month to watch John Goodman—I guess with a big white beard, he’d make one heck of a Santa, so it’s appropriate! I enjoyed seeing him in Argo earlier in the month, and in Red State, he shines as the ATF agent stuck in the mad and mucky middle between heavily armed religious zealots and equally heavily armed government agents.
I’m a big fan of writer/director Kevin Smith’s irreverent work based on astute observation and study. Case in point: Dogma, Smith’s 1999 controversial masterpiece—a satirical, fantasy-filled look at church doctrine—shows that the man knows scripture, politics, pop culture, and even rationalizations, and he’s able to incorporate his scrutiny of any topic into an entertaining package with amazing performances and memorable scenes.
Red State is no different, and it provokes discomfort similar to that of Dogma when it was released. Purposefully, Smith released Red State film himself in 2011 (yeah, don’t ask me why it took me so long to watch and review it—I have no excuse) to ensure full creative integrity. The basic story is like a triptych: “Sex” is a segment in which teens (Ronnie Connell, Michael Angarano, and Nichals Braun) are lured by a sex website to visit a woman (Melissa Leo) who promises to sleep with them all but instead drugs them and has her cohorts take them away. This brings us to “Religion,” in which these fundamentalists of the Five Points Church—mostly made up of one big family, led by a blustery patriarch (Michael Parks)—take their campaign of intolerance to the next level, professing that homosexuals are not really people and God wants the righteous to exact their wrath on them. They begin killing the boys. Meanwhile, “Politics” is busy investigating Five Points, without knowing about the ill-fated kidnappings. They show up with the local sheriff (Stephen Root) in tow, who really messes things up and turns the church-ATF standoff into an all-out gunfight. But the true objective here, not embraced by everyone, is to sweep the fanatics under the rug for good.
It’s a not a “fun” film to watch. For starters, it’s not nearly as humorous as Smith’s other work. Based on Smith’s longstanding beef with Fred Phelps and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (the Kansas-based fruitcakes who picket funerals with signs that read “God hates fags”), the film hits nerves straight out of news headlines. Primarily, it point out how people on all sides of issues tend to descend into ideology they convince themselves about and then pervert to various ends.
The best line in the movie kind of sums up the whole point. Goodman’s character, when asked why he disobeyed orders, tells the story of how his grandmother had two bloodhounds from the same litter, inseparable and loving, until the day he threw them a single bone and watched them turn vicious to fight over it. What he learned about human nature from it is “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.”