A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2011
2011, R, 90mins.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
script also seems all over the map in terms of what it’s trying to say.
Is it a dissection of crazed religious fanaticism
or a critical analysis of the government’s abuse of power post 9/11
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
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.
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.