Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Darkest State

Kevin Smith's latest effort, Red State, came out in a swirl of controversy. Whiny film critics and distributors threw figurative rocks at him after the initial screening at Sundance in January 2011. Too bad because it's a good and interesting film.

I suspect a lot of the ire leveled at Smith comes from the same peanut gallery that slammed him for 1997's Chasing Amy. They went in expecting fart and dick jokes; instead they got a scathing commentary on the state of America's deeply broken religious and political ideology.

I'm of two minds regarding the critics that trashed Red State. One, they're cynical Hipsters living deep inside the cultural bubbles of New York or L.A. and they simply don't believe that a place like Cooper's Corner could actually exist. The Heart Land is something they occasionally fly over on trips back to see the 'rents and demand more trust fund money. Or, on the other hand, they're cynical Hipsters who live in non-culturally insulated places like Memphis, Cincinnati or Austin -- and Red State flies way too close to home, which is probably a small, dusty town too much like Cooper's Corner. This second crop of critics is afraid to give a thumbs up for the film because it would ruffle feathers, put beads on them as they're driving home on dark country roads late at night.

Once upon a time I lived in one of those non-bubbles (Reno, Nev.) and I had to be careful what I wrote as a journalist or else I'd earn the rage of a local fundamentalist librarian (yes, she really existed) or a fuming minister would show up in my editor's office.

Red State is very much a here-and-now tale. Three teenage boys drive to an internet hook-up expecting sex with a horny housewife and instead are kidnapped by a fundamentalist Christian cult that has judged them "social parasites".

Smith has no qualms about mentioning Waco's infamous Branch Davidians, Fred Phelps or any other of the vast, toxic soup of Right Wing extremists who form the edge of America's political landscape. These are the real Freddy Kruegers, the real specters who haunt us not because they're horror-film scary but perhaps because they give some of us pause: how easy it would be to agree to their hate edicts like so many Glenn Beck followers. If we could identify a specific scapegoat in America (gays, blacks, immigrants) we could root them out, eliminate them and all would be Right again. We would metaphorically kill the collective self doubt that has plagued this country since its inception.

Red State rides almost entirely on the shoulders of a Rev. Phelps-inspired lunatic mesmerizingly played by veteran actor Michael Parks. Parks' Abin Cooper is a mumbling, preening dictator whose only congregation is his immediate family and grandchildren. His egotism is so complete he seduces others into, if not believing him, at least doubting themselves as in the critical scene where John Goodman's befuddled ATF agent takes him into custody.

Abin Cooper's power is his egomania. To doubt him is to doubt God. Cooper is God in the film: he sees all and, freakishly, appears to know all. With an ego the size of the Houston Stadium, he stomps out anything that offends him, especially his chosen scapegoats: homosexuals. In another life, Abin Cooper would have been a KKK leader because his kind cannot exist without scapegoats, they are the fuel for his fiery hatred and the focal point of his murderous rage.

Toward the end of Red State, Goodman's character muses over the schism that separates America politically and religiously. The metaphor of the two dogs fighting over the bone tells us that for Agent Keenan there is no doubt that the specter of rabid bigotry lives in America because it threatens to swallow reasonable men like him whole.