Fear Those Who Fear God

There’s a tradition of reading some of Jesus’ more intense sayings as prophetic hyperbole. That is, when Jesus in Mark 9:47, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell,” he doesn’t really mean that we should all run around plucking out eyeballs or cutting off body parts. No one…even the most conservative Christians…believes that. Jesus is being hyperbolic here in an effort to encourage his followers to take their lives, and the inevitable sin in them, seriously. Just because we don’t take this passage literally, doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously. I would argue that this notion of prophetic hyperbole is an appropriate lens through which to view Kevin Smith’s latest film, Red State, a disturbing thriller about an extremely violent, fundamentalist Christian sect.

In Red State, three high school boys, Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner), solicit sex from a middle aged woman on the Internet. She wants to have sex with all three of them at the same time and as they make their plans and drive out to her rural trailer, they debate how it’s going to go down, their homophobia guiding most of the conversation. On the way, they sideswipe a parked car and quickly speed off. When they arrive at the trailer and meet Sara (Melissa Leo), they get more than they bargained for. Sara is actually the daughter of Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) the leader of Five Points Trinity Church, a violent extremist Christian sect. Members of the congregation kidnap the three teenagers and use them in their bizarre evening service (ritual). Out investigating the hit and run, Deputy Pete (Matt L. Jones) spots the boys’ car hidden among some bushes on the Five Points Trinity property. His conversation with Abin buys the boys enough time to escape and foil their captors plans. This also sparks a standoff between members of Five Points Trinity Church and the local authorities and A.T.F., led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), which turns brutally violent as the Five Points congregants pack more than the Sword of the Spirit. In a bizarre turn of events, the conflict ends through what we later learn is an exploitation of the congregants’ most anticipated life-changing events.

Michael Parks gives a fantastic performance as Abin Cooper.

There are really only three things that mark this as a Kevin Smith film: rapid dialogue, a wealth of cursing, and some dark humor. Other than that, he’s in some pretty new (aside from the commentary on religion) territory. He’s doing a gritty thriller, action movie unlike anything he’s ever done before…and he kicks the proverbial door down with it. Unlike so many action movies that make the audience feel like they’re sitting in the middle of a blender, Smith and director of photography David Klein somehow manage to keep everything in extreme focus even as the action is moving at break-neck speed. Red State also benefits from an impressive script, the strength of which lies in much of Parks and Goodman’s dialogue.

There might have been a few actors who could have fit these roles, but I doubt that the film would have been as effective without the cast Smith assembled here, particularly Parks, Leo, and Goodman. I’m glad Smith has taken a stab at qualifying his film for Oscar consideration because, while I don’t think the film itself deserves a nomination, Parks certainly does. He plays a character who is part Rev. Harry Powell and part Daniel Plainview, and he plays it to the hilt. The lengthy sermon scene in which we first meet him is qualification enough for a Best Actor nod. The hymns and scriptures roll off of his tongue like poison-laced honey. Leo’s performance as Abin’s daughter left me wondering if she’ll ever deliver a bad one. It’s great to see Goodman back on the big screen, and he does a great job as a conflicted A.T.F.  member who faces a difficult moral test. While some viewers might argue that he fails that test, he does provide the most sobering assessment of the events in the film.

Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe) desparately searches for a way out of the conflict.

And of course there’s the whole religion thing. As I mentioned above, I think Smith’s engaging in prophetic hyperbole here. He doesn’t believe all conservative, radically evangelical Christians are gun-toting nut-jobs. Even as Abin and his Five Points community closely mirror Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, Smith gives Keenan a line in which he tells his superior that, unlike the Five Points congregation, the Phelps community hasn’t amassed firearms.However, like Phelps, Abin and his followers reveal the ability of some Christians to embrace the letter of the Word without understanding its Spirit. Abin can quote scripture until kingdom come (an event he’s eagerly awaiting), but he leaves no room for the love or grace of God to move among either his congregants or especially unbelievers.

It’s a bit of a spoiler here, but the members of Five Points Trinity Church not only protest funerals and get their message out in the media, they’re also actively ridding the world of the sinful plagues (specifically homosexuality and sexual perversion) that they believe are destroying the country. That they, in part, torture and kill their victims on a cross inside their sanctuary is a point of irony that seems to be lost on Abin and his followers. While these victims aren’t Christ figures in the film, Smith is clearly making a point about the way hard-core Christian fundamentalists often treat others.

As the film draws to a close, Keenan offers a level-headed interpretation of not only Five Points Trinity Church, but perhaps all conservative, fundamental religious communities. He tells his superiors at the end of the film, “People do strange things when they believe they’re entitled. People do even stranger things when they plain believe.” The problem is not belief, in and of itself, but belief devoid of any reason, doubt, or, I would add, faith. Earlier in the film, an officer asks Keenan, as they observe the Five Points compound, “What do you think a cross like that costs?” Keenan responds, “In dollars or common sense?” I’ve read several negative reviews of Red State in which some critics claim they’d like to have seen Smith “take a side.” I don’t know what film they’re watching, but with lines like these, it seems that he has indeed taken a side. Yet, in a rather subtle way, he refuses to damn “the opposition,” even as they are eager to damn him. Towards the beginning of the film, Travis et al’s high school teacher lectures on the Constitution. Of course her major discussion point is the freedom of religion and as the scene fades out, the class touches on the Second Amendment. While she claims that Abin and his crew have every constitutional right to express their beliefs, she certainly thinks the world would be a better place without them (“The Nazis have even alienated themselves from Abin and Five Points”). Unlike this teacher, Keenan (and Smith?) view the opposing sides in much more complex ways.

Red State is a haunting film…it’ll be difficult to listen to “The Old Rugged Cross” the same way again…and it’s one that couldn’t have come at a better time. Unfortunately, it will not enjoy the wide theatrical release that it deserves, but its availability on both On-Demand and through iTunes certainly helps boost its potential audience. In a time when we have political candidates running on, essentially, theocratic platforms, Red State reveals yet again the danger of fundamental religious absolutism, especially when it has access to multiple forms of power.