Friday 27 December 2019

Cult Cinema #19: The Atrocity Tour, Part 3

Red State (2011)

Unique among the big Cult Atrocity Stories is the story of what happened at Waco in 1993, in that although the cult in question was belligerent and awful, the atrocity was done to them, rather than by them. The Branch Davidians were in fact a fringe group of Seventh Day Adventists, who were as horrible as you would imagine the sort of right wing group that holes itself up in a barbed wire surrounded compound would be. In 1993, a splinter group of them – remember that cults split like crazy – led by Vernon Howell, who called himself David Koresh, wound up besieged by agents of the ATF, who had become concerned about their stockpiling of automatic weapons, along with the Texas Rangers and the FBI. It's a long and miserable story, but the upshot is that it got out of hand, the agents wound up storming the place, and accidentally setting it on fire, killing most of them, including David Koresh.

The Waco siege became one of the cause célèbres of the Far Right in the USA, along with the so-called Ruby Ridge siege, and revenge for it was eventually one of the rationales for the Oklahoma City bombing. Right Wing wingnuts in the US are terrified that it will happen again. And they're frankly not a hundred percent unjustified. American agencies do like to shoot first, after all. It's pretty much their defining feature.

The extremist end of the Christian Right of course has other examples, and of course the Branch Davidians, who are still around, aren't by any means the only bunch of ultra right Christian extremists.

The poster children for evangelical bigotry are the Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation of the late Pastor Fred Phelps, who died in 2014. Westboro Baptist Church, almost entirely composed of the hate-spitting patriarch's descendants and relatives, is of course infamous for its preoccupation with sodomy as the primary sin besetting the USA. They are known for courting outrage with extravagant public statements, and staging protests, often at the most offensive and extreme places they can, especially at funerals. Their most infamous slogan, “God hates fags”, is the first thing you think of when you think of them. They live in a weird in between place, halfway between respectable functioning members of society with jobs and cult loons. They are probably the most single famous protestant church congregation in America.

When Kevin Smith wrote and directed Red State, then, he made the wise move of realising that if he was going to make a movie with Not-Waco, then rather than having an obscure and specific subsect of a subsect of a sect (where you'd have to at least take a stab at some of the politics and offbeat theologies), he'd go for the recognisable. So the elevator pitch for Red State is very much: what if the Waco siege, only with the Westboro Church rather than the Branch Davidians?
Obviously they're Not-Westboro; in fact, probably to stave off potential lawsuits from a group that is as horribly litigious as it is busy, it is made clear in dialogue that the Five Points Church in the movie is not Westboro, that the real Westboro are not gun nuts, and do not do all the things that the church in Red State does.

But the comparisons are there to be made.

We see them, right at the start of the film, protesting at a funeral of a murdered gay man just as the Westboro Church still does. High school senior Travis (Michael Angarano) is driven past it by his mum on the way to school. He's held up. But his excuse checks out and and he has more issues on his mind, as he and his pals Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) have found a cougar on the Internet who's willing to have sex with the three of them in one session.

Driving off in Travis's car, they're so excited that they wind up bumping a car that's parked on the side of the road. They don't realise it, but it belongs to the Sheriff (Stephen Root), who is in the middle of engaging in his guiltiest regular pastime, namely having illicit casual sex with other guys. The car bump is what sets off the tragic events of the movie.

Because Jarod, Travis and Billy-Ray meet with Sara (Melissa Leo) who drugs their beer and takes them to the Five Points Church, where they are caged and tied and it is made clear that they will be killed in the course of the church service, just as the gay man who is tied with plastic to the big cross is.

The service is led by the Phelpsian patriarch, Abin Cooper (could a-been screen legend Michael Parks). This is the centrepiece of the film, as Cooper, with easy down-home bonhomie, delivers a sermon of hate that makes a sort of terrible, miserable sense. It's a masterclass on how to push fundamentalist rhetoric just far enough that it goes to its logical extent, and indeed, it is the same rhetoric Phelps uses, just extended sufficiently to justify murder.
Cooper: You're already dead, sinner. You destroyed your spirit in a waste of shame.
The film could perhaps be a straight horror film now, maybe even Eli Roth-style torture porn, but instead, things blow up.
Instead, the plot – by design – falls apart like a prematurely set off domino run. 

The Sheriff's deputy comes looking for the car that sideswiped the Sheriff's car. He overhears the shooting of Billy-Ray, who briefly escapes but who manages to kill one of the cult members before dying in a hail of bullets himself. The cult members shoot the deputy and Cooper threatens the Sheriff with exposure. The Sheriff decides that he's just going to call the ATF. The ATF send a group led by Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who lay siege to the place. Travis escapes. As he sprints out of the compound, the Sheriff, still nervy, guns him down.

The cult members tool up. Things escalate. As Bodies begin to pile up, Keenan, who is not a bad man, but not an especially good one, gets the order to just go in and massacre the lot of them. He wavers.

An attempt by Cooper's granddaughter Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) to end the siege by freeing Jarod and making a deal with the feds escalates things. But Keenan's agents are at best trigger happy and at worst actual murderers (one guy – Marc Blucas, who I last saw in Buffy – literally gives Cheyenne an empty gun and orders her to run back into the house so he can shoot her in the back. She's rescued. This time). Jarod is panicky and intractable.

The boys all wind up dead, and more of them by bullets fired by the law than by the people who actually want to murder them. Cheyenne winds up dead. The Sheriff, too, is abruptly killed by a stray bullet.

It is only the sudden, inexplicable sound of the Final Trumpet of the Rapture that ends the impasse. Cooper and his clan come out and praise the Lord. And they all get arrested, because it's not, the Final Trumpet, it's actually some guys on the farm next door who are messing with them. Which is a Deus ex Machina, a ridiculous, deliberate, unapologetic one.
It's a cynical, painful film, a film that depicts a world where no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, it's impossible because some idiot will make a mistake that ruins everything.

Now the single most useful thing I've heard about Kevin Smith is that people like Kevin Smith a lot more than they like Kevin Smith's movies. And it's true, Smith is a force of relentless positivity and enthusiasm, is a great public speaker and is generally regarded as a nice bloke (he was one of the few men who worked with Miramax who responded to the #MeToo scandal appropriately, for instance). His films are pretty hit and miss, though, and Red State is a grim sort of experience, and what humour there is is resolutely black, and doesn't really alleviate the tone much. It's not half as much fun to watch as maybe you would think it would be.

For much of the movie, you're kind of wondering what the point is. It doesn't have a protagonist as such, or a point of view character, although Keenan, in the second half of the film, tired and increasingly frustrated, gets close. It's only really at the end of the movie that Keenan, in an interview with his superiors about the debacle, sums up what the film is about.
Keenan: People do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.

It harks back to the plain, simple and logical hate sermon that drives the centre of the film. Cooper is abusive, but he's abusive in a realistic way, offering encouragement and cheer. He is the least hypocritical character in the film. He lives up to his beliefs. He follows through. He's a man of terrible evil, of course, but then if you follow through on the Fred Phelps take on evangelicalism to its final exterminationist extent and you have integrity, you're going to be.
Red State makes sense in a way that The Sacrament didn't. Like The Sacrament, it scales down its massacre by several degrees, but unlike The Sacrament, it uses other real world issues to add texture and context. It's an easier sell: the USA really does seem to be rotten with Second Amendment gun loons and the American federal authorities really are ridiculously trigger happy. American evangelicals are, in 2020, even more committed to their christofascist ideology than they were in 2011 (consider: when hyperconservative journal Christianity Today wrote an editorial suggesting that evangelicals were doing themselves no favours by aligning themselves with a sexually promiscuous, lying thief, many American evangelicals accused them of pursuing a “leftist agenda”).

Having said that, this brings its own problems. The Branch Davidians had broken the law, but that was in their stockpiling of firearms. They weren't murdering people, and OK, if you made a mashup of Westboro and Branch Davidian, maybe they would, and yes it makes narrative sense, but even though Red State takes pains to show the federal authorities as incompetent, callous, corrupt, and/or ineffectual, it still, by showing this fictional mashup as a bunch of serial killers, deprives us of sympathy for them. David Koresh's group of Branch Davidians were simply afraid. They were abusive, and bigoted, and strange, and obsessed with guns, but mainly they were afraid, and their fears came true.

Still, in The Sacrament, we saw a depiction of people not behaving like people. Kevin Smith is a better writer than that, though. He's just not a particularly positive or hopeful one. It's a film that makes a sort of sense, but God, it's depressing.