See It: Red State

I’m not in this and there’s really nothing to do with comics*, but I saw Kevin Smith’s new movie, Red State, at the historic New Beverly Cinema last night. Kevin Smith held a lengthy Q&A after the screening, which he’s doing twice a day all this week.

I’m not a hardcore Kevin Smith fan. I enjoyed Clerks when it was released and Dogma was good but he never really changed my life like he has for some. I haven’t even seen all of his movies, unlike many of my friends. With that bias disclaimer, and what I know of his work, this might be his best movie.

As Abin Cooper says in the movie, “It’s about to get grown-up in here.” Kevin Smith noted it himself in the Q&A that he feels this is his grown-up movie and I agree. This is a much more mature and ambitious work than I’ve seen from him, and it’s intentionally not looking to be a mainstream Hollywood seller. The central narrative gets handed off like a relay race throughout the movie, passing from one circle of characters to the next. There’s no love interest. It’s not an easily pegged genre (I thought it was a horror movie based on the trailer but it’s not). That’s not to say this is art house experimentation, but it’s the most unconventional and confident movie he’s ever put out, and stands in stark contrast when lined up with his other movies.

Much of the success comes down to some fantastic acting. Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper is snake-oil slick, charming, and somehow actually believable as a murderous cult leader using religion to control his followers. A long scene shows Cooper giving his sermon, and while it was probably too long, it showed the calm resolve of radical thoughts so deeply held and ingrained. He could easily have played the role as a maniac, but he was smart in being a charming father and grandfather and a southern gentleman who just happened to think God wants all homosexuals killed. (Yes, an intentional swipe at Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.) John Goodman is also great as the government agent assigned to investigate the Cooper Compound.

The Westboro Baptist Church has picketed the movie (they really like picketing things, as that Wikipedia link will tell you) and Kevin Smith told a great story of how the interaction with the Church escalated. He eventually invited them to a previous screening and said they could review the movie to the audience. They actually took him up on the offer but bailed seven minutes into the movie before their film analogs even arrived on-screen. But two young members of the Phelps family sat through the whole thing and spoke afterward, revealing that they had left the family and Church, and deeply regretted their involvement in the picketing of Matthew Shepard’s funeral and other hateful protests. They were just kids at the time and as they grew older they realized that God probably wouldn’t want them to pray for their enemies’ death. As Kevin described the incident, the two had been exiled from the family and Church, which resembled more of a cult than a religion. They confirmed that the family still involved in the Church very much believed in the hateful things they say, it’s not an opportunistic act.

While the movie probably won’t change anyone’s mind about the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s already created dialogue and awareness just in its short life so far. It’s also an entertaining ride and has one of the best final scenes I’ve seen in a while.

Red State will be released on video on demand September 1.

*Kevin Smith has written comics, so OK not entirely nothing to do with comics.

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