Kevin Smith’s ‘Red State’ tour: With fans like these, who cares what the critics say?

Kevin Smith at Grand Central. (Photo via mjpeacecorps flickr stream.)
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Thousands of young, male, large-black-t-shirt-wearing Kevin Smith fans descended on Radio City Music Hall this weekend for the first stop of a multi-city tour to screen his new movie, Red State.

The first thing Smith said when he appeared on stage before the movie, after a wildly enthusiastic and extended round of applause, was, “Well here’s another iconic establishment we’re about to besmirch.” Red State, advertised as a horror movie, isn’t, exactly, but it's hard to say exactly what it is. Not coincidentally, the early reviews tended toward not-unsympathetic exasperation: appreciation of Smith's effort to make something different from his earlier offerings, mixed with confusion about the end result.)

Inspired by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which believes among other things that America’s supposed tolerance for homosexuality has doomed the nation, the film depicts a small, inbred, anti-gay community led by a pastor who preaches that “God doesn’t love you unless you fear him.” Red State is in fact part horror, part thriller, part action, and part satire, depicting a sect that is actually more extreme than the real-life Westboro. The leader of the Red State church, Pastor Abin Cooper, refers to Phelps' organization at one point, dismissing them as “suers, not doers.”

At Radio City, the gilded, elegant, old-fashioned space was full of Smith's superfans; they had paid at least $60 to see Smith and to watch the movie now, instead of in September, when it will be released. They know all about Smith's movies, his comics, his podcasts, and his pivotal and not-so-pivotal biographical details, like the fact that he decided he wanted to make films after seeing Richard Linklater’s Slackers, and that about two years ago, for the first time in his life, he started smoking a lot of pot. So the event felt a little like one long inside joke.

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Wearing, as usual, a giant hockey jersey, Smith acknowleged the premise of the event in a little speech before the movie started: “So thank you all for coming out so much. I know a lot of people could have been like, ‘Fuck you, we’ll see it in the fall for 10 bucks,’ so I appreciate you being here.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank so many fucking people, and we’ll get to them later, but the one I really got to thank, without whom none of it’s possible, the one that sits by me all the time and says, ‘Oh God, really? The Phelpses? Now you’re taking these people on?’ Like, very patient. And lord love her, she’s a chubby- chaser, and she’s the queen of them. I want to thank my wife Jennifer so much.” Applause. “There are very few people in the world that would ever be as patient with my antics as you have been, and you mean everything to me. Thank you for seeing me through this.

“And also it’s not completely altruistic. You say your wife’s name, and 'thank you,' in Radio City Hall? Anal. So once again I’m back to thanking you guys; you just got me laid. Which as a married man is very difficult.”

Also, before the movie started, Smith’s business partner, John Gordon, came out, announced it was his father’s 70th birthday, brought out the father, and had the whole place sing Happy Birthday. The father, Sonny, looked sort of ambivalent about the whole thing.

“John’s gonna get so much anal for this tonight,” Smith said.

And also, before the movie started, Smith located his mother in the audience and lobbed a pack of M&Ms into audience. “Somebody pitch this back to my mother? Watch your head. Good catch, good catch.”

It's a testament to Smith's ability to command a following, no matter what, that Red State got made. It's not a film that makes things easy for the viewer; it juxtaposes genres in a way that’s not entirely graceful, and feels a little scattered. Red State, as has been repeatedly noted elsewhere, is a departure for Smith.

The plot of Red State is this: Three country teenage boys find a woman on the internet (using their smartphones at a table at their high school) who wants to, or is willing to, have sex with all three of them, in the same room, at the same time. Billy Ray, a boy with the buzz-cut black hair and a shiny rattail, pauses momentarily and suggests that all being in the same room at the same time might be a little gay. “Jesus Christ man, don’t be so middle-class,” his friend Jarod says.

So in Jarod’s parents’ station wagon, the three boys careen down the back country roads toward certain bliss. Then Jarod sideswipes a car parked by the side of the road that happens to belong to town sheriff, who happens to be in it, engaging in certain illicit pleasures of the flesh. Loath to miss their opportunity, they continue on to the trailer where this find woman, significantly older than they are and looking like she’s been through a few things. Inside, she hands out beers and makes them each drink two each (“I don’t let no man in me that don’t have two beers in him”) from bottles that, suspiciously, are already open. Undressing in the bedroom, all three collapse, and wake up imprisioned in a church where Pastor Abil Cooper is delivering a sermon to about a dozen parishoners.

(There are two references to Phelps in the movie; both serve to indicate just how radical this other church is supposed to be. One is the "suers" line. The other is when an A.T.F. agent played by John Goodman is on the phone with his superiors, relaying what he can about the Coopers, and he refers to Phelps and says, “There’re irritating, but they’re no gun nuts like the Coopers.”)

Meanwhile, the sherriff arrives at his office, pulls out a bottle of booze, and instructs his underling to find the car that hit him. The underling does, on Cooper’s property, and, after a series of events, winds up dead.

So the kids are kidnapped, the church is up to something very creepy, the compound has the attention of the authorities, and a church is heavily armed. What follows is the church’s sick handling of the boys, a bloody shoot-out, and a dark but comic end.

“This is a nasty-ass little horror flick with few, if any, likeable characters,” Smith said. It’s true. The only characters that elicit sympathy, and the only characters that develop over the course of the movie, are Goodman’s middling A.T.F. agent and Carrie Bishé as Cheyenne, Pastor Cooper's granddaughter. As one of the boys who asked a question after the film put it, seeing Goodman as an action hero “was like seeing your dad kick ass!”