A night out with the wife and friends, Kevin Smith, and the Westboro Baptist Church?
Okay, so here’s the lowdown: Writer/director/podcaster/Silent Bob alter ego Kevin Smith returned to Kansas City this past Saturday night, bringing with him his new indie film Red State, a “horror” movie which uses for inspiration Fred Phelps, his family, and the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. The screening was advertised as also featuring one of Smith’s patented “Q&A sessions” with the audience. Having seen the DVDs of such performances and after attending one live here in KC last year, I have to say that Smith is one of the most entertaining storytellers I’ve ever heard. I think I enjoy listening to him just spin a yarn more than watching his movies (and I don’t mean that as dissin’ his flicks…well, except maybe for Cop Out. I kid! I kid!). So, even though we had already purchased tickets for his upcoming show in KC in May, missing this “extra” visit to Cowtown just wasn’t an option.
But, just to sweeten the deal, Smith announced in the days before the screening that there would be special guests in attendance. While I already knew that members of the Westboro Baptist Church would be there, picketing Smith and the screening just as they had his Q&A last year, what came as a surprise was that Smith had invited the Phelps family to watch the film as his guests. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s an easy offer to make, because there’s no way the Phelps would accept the invitation, right?
Nope. The invitation was accepted, setting the stage for an epic showdown between Smith and the WBC. When Saturday night finally arrived, the party was in full swing outside the historic Midland Theater in Kansas City. A large, boisterous crowd waited outside the theater to be admitted for the screening, while an apparently larger-than-usual contingent from the WBC was on hand, waving their signs and reminding us that we’re all destined for a bullet-train to Hell. The pro-Smith gang had their own signs, too, of course, making for a bit of spirited competition between the two factions.
Now, the movie. Believe what you’ve read: Red State ain’t the “typical” Kevin Smith flick, that’s for sure. Jay and Silent Bob do not lurk in the shadows. While there are several snippets of Smithian-style dialogue sprinkled throughout the script (including one or two laugh-out-louders), you will find not a single reference to anything View Askew-related. If there’s any sort of wink or nod to any of Smith’s backlist anywhere in this film, I didn’t see it.
As for the movie itself? Holy. Shit.
Leave any expectations at home. The plot? Three high school kids answer an internet ad for sex, and when they go looking for the meet-up they instead run afoul of Cooper and his family, all of whom are devoted to Cooper’s “Five Points Trinity Church.” To call Cooper and the 5PTC a simple riff on Phelps and the WBC would be a mistake; once you get past the surface comparison, things take a decided turn for…well, damn.
Without offering any spoilers, if you think he’s gonna zig, Smith zags. If you think character X is going to do or say something because that’s what similar character X-types do or say in other movies, forget it. If you’re certain he “won’t go there” with this or that, you’re screwed. Every time…every time…there’s an opportunity to pull a punch, Smith instead hits you twice. Hard. Michael Parks, playing the Fred Phelps-inspired character Abin Cooper, is quite simply chilling. This isn’t a parody of Phelps; Parks completely inhabits the role and makes it his own, to stunning effect. John Goodman provides an authentic world-weary, jaded quality as the veteran ATF agent who becomes involved as the plot unfolds. Recent Academy Award winner Melissa Leo (who I remember from the truly awesome television series Homicide: Life On the Street), plays Cooper’s daughter, who has so totally drunk the Kool-Aid. Red State is being called a “horror film.” Why? Because the horror you see on the screen is something that could happen…right down the street from you.
The film looks pretty damned good, with deft editing and pacing helping to disguise the fact that it’s the product of a modest $4,000,000 budget. A few of the younger performers aren’t as polished as their veteran co-stars, but most of those very minor slips occur early on. It’s hard to explain the ending without spoiling anything, but the film’s penultimate scene–which I view as the true ending–is perhaps a bit too pat, and probably goes the furthest toward returning to anything resembling “Smith territory.” That’s not necessarily a ding. All in all, Red State was a very entertaining flick. I don’t know that it’s something I’d watch on a rainy day, but I’m definitely going to see it again when it’s released to theaters this fall. Smith’s commentary track should be worth the price of the DVD, along with the special features it’s liable to contain.
One of those features will almost certainly be the Q&A which took place after our screening. Though the Phelps clan who accepted Smith’s invitation to watch the film left less than twenty minutes in (they told Smith it was “too filthy.” HAH!) and so weren’t on hand for their promised post-movie analysis, the grand surprise of the evening, to Smith as well as the rest of us, was when two people stepped up to one of the microphones during the Q&A. When they identified themselves as Libby Phelps and Joshua Phelps-Roper–two members of the Phelps family who have publicly renounced their association with the WBC–the place went nuts. What followed was an extended interview, with Libby and Josh on stage with Kevin Smith and dishing the truth behind the WBC and Clan Phelps. According to what we learned, it’s all true. They truly believe all the shit they spew.
You can watch a portion of the interview by checking out this piece at The Pitch, KC’s indie newspaper: Pitch.com – Kevin Smith’s Q&A with ex-Westboro Baptist Church members (video)
According to Smith, the whole Q&A was recorded, and will if at all possible be included with the DVD release. Awww, yeah.
So, there you go. What a hell of a fun night. I can’t wait until Smith (with Jason Mewes!) returns to town in May.