A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2011

RED STATE jj
½ 

2011, R, 90mins.

 

Michael Parks: Pastor Cooper / John Goodman: ATF Agent Keenan / Melissa Leo: Sarah / Michael Angarano: Travis / Stephen Root: Sheriff Wynan / Kerry Bishe: Cheyenne  

 

Written and directed by Kevin Smith

“People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled.  But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.”

- Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) in RED STATE

 

Kevin Smith’s RED STATE debuted with a real buzz earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, but perhaps no one was expecting him to engage in a highly unusual and potentially heavy-handed gamble when it came to releasing the film to the general viewing audience.  Instead of using the traditional studio system to give RED STATE a wide release, Smith opted to purchase the film himself and launch the film on a series of North America tours through various cities.  Smith, if anything, is arguably one of the best in his field when it comes to self-promotion and getting his name and voice out there to be heard on social media sites. 

RED STATE potentially would not have been given a wide and general release in pure hindsight anyways, especially considering the inevitable firestorm of controversy it most likely would have garnered considering its subject matter.  If anything, the film is at its most successful for showcasing Smith – usually known for his nail-bitingly shrewd, colorfully profane, and pop-cultured infused dialogue and whimsically crude characters – taking a radical detour of sorts form the types of indie and mainstream comedies that have peppered his career.  Sometimes the best remedy for a filmmaker dealing with a previous failure (as was the case for Smith with wickedly unfunny buddy/cop action comedy, COP OUT, one of the worst films of 2010) is to fully travel outside of their comfort zone for their follow-up, and Smith has certainly done that with RED STATE. 

There is something kind of euphoric for how he absconds from verbosely written comedies dominated by twenty-something slackers and into a religious horror-thriller like RED STATE.  On purely superficial technical levels, the film is easily Smith's most polished, professional looking, and visually dynamic ones to date, which proves that he can definitely helm action (something he failed miserably at in COP OUT), not to mention that he has the chops to tackle a serious film.  The main problem, though, with RED STATE is that he does not find a satisfying way to bring all of his story themes cohesively together.  RED STATE is a good-looking and well-directed film that is a bit scattershot when it comes to narrative focus. 

The story itself begins with the funeral of a local gay murdered teenage boy at the Five Points Church, that just so happens to be protested by a local pastor, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his parish (Cooper is not-so-subtly inspired by the infamous fundamentalist extremes of Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” fame).  Soon afterwards we meet the film’s three primary teen characters and they all seem handpicked from the Smith-sonian film factory of perpetually horny and vulgarly sex-starved adolescents that have permeated many of the writer/director’s past works.  The lads (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner) are looking to get laid and get laid quick, and their mutual hopes are peaked when they receive an response for an online date from a middle aged woman, Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has agreed to have sex with all three of them. 

That night the boys set out for the woman’s remote trailer home, but along the way they accidentally hit the parked patrol vehicle of the local sheriff (played well by Stephen Root) who was servicing…whoops, make that being serviced by someone of the same sex in his vehicle.  The teens manage to speed away before the stunned officer can get a look at them and they do arrive at the somewhat dilapidated trailer home.  When inside Sarah offers the boys beers, because she will only fornicate with them after they’re drunk.   Unfortunately for them, they all pass out, and when they awaken it the real horror of RED STATE germinates.  It appears that they are gagged, bound, and being held captive by Pastor Cooper and his unhealthily loyal, God-fearing, and gay-hating members of his Westboro Baptist Church.  Cooper and his acolytes take their faith and the Bible so literally that they perform vile and monstrous rituals by torturing and murdering homosexual men, seeing as Cooper finds their kind as one reason in a multitude for the beginning of apocalypse.  Of course, the captured teens themselves are not gay, but Cooper finds their sexually promiscuous ways equally repellent and opts to sacrifice them as well.   

 

 

Concurrent to this is a local police investigation into the Sheriff’s brush with the teens’ car, which eventually spills over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives arriving at Cooper's isolated church, led by the ATF special agent Joseph Keenan (a stalwart and assured John Goodman) that begrudgingly accepts the assignment despite his inexperience in such matters.  Things, however, snowball really fast and escalate into a Waco-esque bloody and savage shootout between the ATF and Cooper and his crazed minions inside.  Keenan gets news during the standoff that he does not want to hear: his superiors have given him explicit orders to take out everyone inside because the religious zealots are now considered terrorists to be shot on sight, no questions asked.  One thing is for sure: all of this will not end pretty. 

RED STATE has been frequently called a horror picture, and it is just that, but more in a theological and spiritual way and most of the film’s first two acts are indeed unnerving and squirm inducing to sit through.  The performances assist with this, particularly with Leo, who creates a creepy and steely-eyed cretin fanatic that will have nothing sway her beliefs.  Then of course, there is Parks, who creates one of the more unsettling villains of the year with his oddly soft-spoken and gentle tempered, but inwardly insane and loathsomely evil preacher.  Parks has that sort of backwoods accent and a calm and introverted grandfatherly charm, but he is nonetheless a seductive caldron of malevolence.  He occupies the film’s very best scene, a tour-de-force 15-minute monologue where Smith daringly gives this cruel monster a voice to relay a morally reprehensible, but articulately given hate-speech that Cooper uses to make all of his actions justifiable.  Like all truly evil men, Cooper believes he’s the good and righteous figure for what he does.  It’s the kind of movie moment that lures Oscar voters, and Parks certainly deserves nomination consideration: he’s simply scarily mesmerizing here. 

The performances all hit the right raw nerves and Smith’s direction – with the assistance of cinematographer David Klein -  makes RED STATE an appealingly dirty, grimy, and visually ugly looking film that echoes grindhouse efforts of the past.  Smith also knows how to play with genre conventions and teases audience expectations (the film is scandalous for how it introduces would-be important characters and then dispatches them quickly and without hesitation in a hallo of brain splattering gun fire).  Yet, the real dilemma with RED STATE is in its failure to find an emotional portal into this material.  Cooper and his kind are all murderous thugs; Keenan is, at first, a decent lawman that becomes a pathetic puppet to the Feds’ wishes; and, hell, even the teens that are captured are all kind of loathsome and selfish creeps without any redeeming values.  It’s hard to really root them on to escape Cooper’s clutches because, deep down, we don’t really like them. 

Smith’s script also seems all over the map in terms of what it’s trying to sayIs it a dissection of crazed religious fanaticism or a critical analysis of the government’s abuse of power post 9/11 or a pulpy and gory exploitation film that uses its targets for the sake of cheap sensationalism or an unseemly combination of all of those extremes?  It’s hard to have a film that wants to be a luridly transgressive B-grade affair while simultaneously being contemplative and compelling with its themes.  And then there is the film’s botched attempt at a would-be ambitious and potentially divisive climax that could have ended the film with stunning and awesome WTF jolt.  Alas, Smith's script opts for a more perfunctory ending where one character engages in a lengthy monologue that explains that what we just witnessed was in fact not what we thought we just witnessed.  Lamentably, the screenplay really betrays itself in the end. 

Smith has proved here with RED STATE can he can make a fairly serious film without an influx of - as he would jovially state - “dick and fart” gags, and this is certainly a step in the right direction for his career trajectory.  His problem, though, is one of discipline and, to be blunt, deciding on whether or not his underlining material is there to satirically spite or to thoughtfully comment on.  I think that, in the end, even Smith can’t seem to decide how he feels about RED STATE’s story and themes.  The final words uttered in the film includes a very amusing line of f-bomb riddled offensiveness directed at one key character.  It’s almost as if Smith is saying that he doesn’t take RED STATE as seriously as he expects that all of us should, which is unavoidably to the film’s discredit. 

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