By Nick Maylor

I have been a fan of Kevin Smith for the better part of two decades. His irreverent and sharp writing style has always spoken to me and I first fell in love with his work when I saw Dogma (1999) for the first time. An intensely smart and funny film about two renegade angels on a mission to re-enter heaven, Dogma is one of the most insightful cinematic commentaries on faith I’ve ever seen. It also contains a “rubber poop monster” as Smith himself described it. Known for his stoner duo Jay and Silent Bob (inspired by Cheech & Chong and Penn & Teller) Smith’s films have never really been mainstream nor have they dominated the box office. Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself, respectively) appeared in all of his earliest films from Clerks (1994) onward until they got their own movie with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). The Jay and Silent Bob movie is most ridiculous of Smith’s comedies and featured a slew of celebrity cameos and tons of laughs. Smith begins filming the sequel Jay and Silent Bob Reboot this year and I personally, can’t wait.

Smith’s films with his signature characters were all placed in a shared fictional universe (long before Marvel did it) but the New Jersey native would venture outside of his comfort zone several times. The first example of this was Jersey Girl (2004), an absolutely wonderful film starring Ben Affleck, George Carlin, Liv Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez. Having been released not long after the disastrous Gigli (2003), Jersey Girl has received a mountain of unjustified hatred. Although it didn’t feature Jay and Silent Bob, Jersey Girl still felt very much within Kevin Smith’s wheelhouse.

As I mentioned above, Dogma is one of the greatest film commentaries on faith; specifically, Smith’s childhood religion, Catholicism. Smith would return to the world of religion and politics with his 2011 film, Red State; another one of the greatest modern films about faith.

Red State was shocking for many reasons. First of all, it looked nothing like a Kevin Smith movie. While it had his signature dialogue in it, the movie bore no resemblance to the movies set in his “View-Askewniverse” and felt more like something that Quinten Tarantino would make. The movie stars Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and Stephen Root. It took inspiration from the late Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas; most famously known for their penchant for picketing funerals brandishing placards and signs that read a variety of disgusting and ignorant platitudes like “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for 9/11” and “Aids Cures Fags”.

The notoriously homophobic church served as inspiration for the 5-points church depicted in the film but Smith’s fictional Pastor Abin Cooper (Parks) veered off from Phelps in several key ways. First of all, he was interesting (if completely insane and unapologetically evil).  Secondly, Cooper’s church was made up of violent gun nuts who carry out ghastly murders on their compound. For better or worse, the real-life Westboro Baptist Church relegated their violence to words; both spoken and written.

John Goodman stars as ATF Special Agent Keenan, a man called to the 5-Points compound to oversee a hostage situation. The church has kidnapped three promiscuous teenagers via an online dating site. Pastor Cooper’s daughter, Sarah (Melissa Leo) was used as bait to lure them in and after being caged up and witnessing a murder, one of them escapes and chaos ensues.

Michael Parks’ performance as Pastor Cooper is spellbinding. He delivers an extensive sermon justifying the murder of a homosexual man that while exceptionally long (in trademark Smith fashion) is endlessly compelling. Parks should have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film but the movie was passed over by many.

Goodman’s performance is also brilliant, one of his best. Melissa Leo was fresh off an Academy Award win for her role in The Fighter (2010) and is in top form as an analog for the real-life Shirley Phelps-Roeper, one of the Westboro Baptist Church’s most vocal spokespersons in the years before her father’s death.

As explained by Smith, when writing the script, every time he thought he knew where the plot was logically headed, he decided to take a massive left turn. This is done so effectively that right up until the end, there are plenty of surprises to behold. As Goodman’s character explains in the film’s closing moments: “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled” but goes on to add “But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe”.

The film ends with Abin Cooper in a jail cell, rambling and singing religious platitudes until an off-screen prison (voice of Smith himself) finally says to the preacher what we are all thinking: “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

Parks also recorded an album of gospel songs (something he contributed to the film in his performance). His delicate singing and haunting delivery add a substantial quality to the already impressive film. Take a listen:

Quinten Tarantino loved Red State as did Ben Affleck; the latter of whom cast John Goodman, Michael Parks, and Kerry Bishé in the Oscar-winning film Argo (2012) after watching this film.

Check it out.

Leave a comment