Kevin Smith’s career is coming to an end. That is not a judgement on hist latest film Red State (2011), but something he has said himself: the writer-director is currently writing his final film, Hit Somebody, which he hopes to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. Sundance has been something of a spiritual home for Smith’s career, the festival where his debut, the cult comedy Clerks (1994) was premiered, and it feels fitting that his directing career should be drawing to a close there.
This film represents something of a volte-face for Smith, whose work has hitherto remained within the loose confines of comedy, all other generic pursuits subdued to his desire for jokes and witty banter. What little comedy there is in Red State is about as dark can get; it is instead a thriller, or even a horror film.
When three teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner) respond to an online sex posting, they end up in the clutches of the Cooper family, an extreme fundamentalist Christian group. The Coopers are composed of one extended family, led by the patriarch Abin (Michael Parks, in an inspired performance).
The Coopers are Smith’s version of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, though pushed to the lengths of what is essentially religious vigilantism. When the Cooper’s farm is besieged by a government force led by Joe Keenan (John Goodman), things continue to escalate, and both sides refuse to back down.
Smith used to say he had considered making a sequel to his 1999 film Dogma, which starred Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as a pair of rogue angels trying to get back into heaven. Dogma was a comic, affectionate examination of faith and the Catholic church in America. The snag with a sequel was that, post-9/11, Smith thought the film would have to be about Islam. Red State must be that film, though Islam is not an issue at all; this is instead a film about radical Christianity’s reaction to what it perceives as threat, and the American government’s new and frightening powers to deal with internal threats.
Red State is a scary film. It’s not a horror film because it shows us what we fear most and irrationally, but because it shows us a fear that is only too possible an occurrence. It’s rather uneven in places, but it is well-cast and very well acted, and certainly the most aesthetically attractive picture of the director’s career. Above all, it shows that Smith, the joker in the pack of American directors who emerged in the early 1990s, is capable of being the most astute in observing the culture around him. What a shame that these talents are only now being given an airing.