Cults in Horror Movies: “Red State” (2011)

Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) delivers the message in Red State. Image source: fernbyfilms.com

(This review contains some allusions to the climactic action of Red State. My advice: check out the movie before reading.)

There is some great, valuable, and even profound stuff in Red State, but to get to it, you have to bang your knees on some first-act hurdles.

For instance: I like to think older teenage boys living in the modern world could detect the whiff of bullshit coming off a bright, flashing, “local sex hook-up” Internet site. (Apparently not.)

Furthermore, even the coolest of cool high-school teachers wouldn’t go off on a tangent about a Fred Phelps-styled religious group without getting into a load of trouble from administrative types and helicopter parents. (It also seems less likely that a class of high-school kids would be as savvy about said religious group as they are here.)

And when our boys – Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) – are given the keys to meet up with middle-aged Sara (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) for a group booty call, she begins the interaction with a thousand-yard stare and intones, “looks like you boys are ready to get up to the devil’s business.” (Well, obviously.)

Foreshadowing is what it is, but subtlety isn’t Kevin Smith’s strong suit.

Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) in Red State. Image source: jorgefarah.com

The remainder of Red State testifies (sorry) to that. But as it progresses, the question of restraint becomes irrelevant in the fight-fire-with-brimstone scenario that unfolds. That the film hinges on a bullet-riddled siege speaks to the sketchy relationship between – as Marilyn Manson put it – “guns, God, and government.” The irony of a bunch of heavily-armed fundamentalists who were previously protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers isn’t lost on the director.

Smith presents a cult not unlike the True-Believer zealots from End of the Line: while Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) presides over a smaller flock at the isolated Five Points Trinity compound, his followers are bright-eyed believers who see nothing wrong with abducting and murdering local homosexuals with all the showmanship of Heinrich Himmler. The script poses a valid question: just what are these people doing when they’re not appearing in public to blare their twisted “message” to anyone within earshot?

As a bit of reference: where I grew up, the annual Halloween parade very reluctantly allowed a now-deceased Baptist minister and a handful of followers to don their doctor- and nurse-costumes (spattered with fake blood, natch) and push their pro-life agenda by flashing large posters of aborted fetuses to the families who’d come out to have a good time. Where I’m living now, I pass by a home that features a large sign that switches out pro-life, anti-Planned Parenthood, and fundamentalist slogans aligning abortion with the interchangeable evils of Satan and the Democratic Party on a weekly basis. To blare these beliefs to the world with such fervor has always made my stomach churn with queasy wonder.

And therein lies the fear factor of Red State. Smith, who is renowned for his dialog, gives Cooper a fantastic, motive-establishing sermon that seems to stretch on endlessly, quoting scripture, referencing Popeye, and even resorting to sarcasm to voice his disdain for “touchy-feely” mainstream religions. Perhaps more chilling is that, beneath the mane of frazzled hair and casual attire, a paternal side exists: by preaching to the already-converted, Cooper coddles his flock with an unassuming authority – he even dismisses the children from the room before a ghastly ritual commences.

Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe) in Red State. Image source: jorgefarah.com

Generational conflict worms its way into the subtext, with an understated theory that fundamentalism, like a progressive disease, manifests more profoundly with age. Sara has long since gone ’round the bend with her glassy-eyed devotion to the gospel according to Abin, but her teenage daughter, Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe – Argo), shows a maternal concern for the young children residing at the compound, to the point where she defies her mother in a desperate act of self-preservation. This, and the climactic events, portray the Five Points members as truly devoted to their cause, with a unified belief in the impending Rapture compelling them to lay down their weapons and face God.

There is also a parallelism introduced between ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman, sporting a grizzled accent) and Cooper: the latter is operating according to a set of ethics that bend only to a divine authority; whereas the former must obey his position within the bureaucratic chain of command. Even further: local Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) caves to Abin’s authority when exposure of his closeted homosexuality is threatened. An epilogue suggests that perhaps there is no answer to why people do what they do in the name of belief, which is far more chilling than any definitive philosophical conclusion.

The misogyny that informs the boys’ dialog during the opening scenes is off-putting in a realistic manner. I knew guys like this during my youth – was one of them at times – and the fact that they’re hung up on the logistics of a threesome underlines not only the pubescent American male’s tendency to view sex as all about the orgasmic endgame, but also their low standing on the high-school food chain, and – when confronted with life-or-death circumstances – the desire to put self-preservation above all else. There is a bleak altruism running through Red State, but its outcome is frequently dashed by unpredictable violence.

For as much as Darwinian types like to quote “survival of the fittest,” Smith shows that survival often owes more to being in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, the filming of the third-act siege is a bit jarring, using awkward cutting that sometimes compounds the chaos more than complementing it. And the occasional shoehorning of dialog between gunshots is misguided, removing the viewer from the action (Abin’s request for sweet tea being a prime offender). On that note, some of the supporting performances are wildly uneven, ranging from stern stoicism to goggle-eyed kookiness; that said, the principals acquit themselves well within this horror-thriller hybrid, and keep the film anchored with a palpable sense of urgency.

The notion of a church being the last outpost for humanity has seldom been as chilling as it is in Red State. Smith presents the compound as a foreboding, no-exit place where each hallway offers possible escape – but more often than not, a dead end. That the story is presented in a realistic manner – with a few comedic sidesteps (some welcome, some not) – further distances it from the fantastical world of vampires in castles, and instead transplants the vampires into America’s collective backyard.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10