Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kevin Smith
Stars: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner.
Red State is heady mix of sex, politics, terrorism, religious fundamentalism and violence, and seems unusual subject matter for writer/director Kevin Smith, who is better known for his slacker comedies like Clerks, Chasing Amy, and edgy, subpar romantic comedies full of puerile humour (Jersey Girl, etc). This is probably bis most interesting, ambitious and morally challenging film since Dogma.
Three horny teenagers (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) take a ride late one night to a trailer park in nearby Cooper’s Dell to meet a woman they met on-line, hoping for an exciting sexual experience. But the three find themselves caught up in a horrific experience far beyond what they imagined.
They are drugged, stripped and imprisoned in the Five Points Church, an extreme evangelical sect, led by religious extremist Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who preaches against homosexuality, fornication and sin. Cooper and his devout right wing disciples even stage protests at the funerals of gay teens. He seems to be delivering his odious, venomous sermons to a small congregation, mainly comprising members of his own (inbred?) family. The three teens are intended to be his next sacrificial victims.
An ATF task force is investigating the church believed to be stockpiling weapons. Under the command of a weary, cynical Keenan (John Goodman, cast against type), a heavily armed force surrounds the compound, unaware of the three teens being held prisoner. A siege situation quickly develops. Keenan’s superiors denounce Cooper’s church and consider his flock as terrorists, giving Keenan a license to kill. The body count rises steadily, and even innocent victims get caught in the crossfire.
Red State takes pot shots at religious extremism, gun toting religious fanatics, terrorism, and government hypocrisy and corruption, but it is tonally uneven, moving swiftly from frat boy sex comedy to Hostel-like torture porn, through to the relentless violence of the siege. The film deliberately recalls events from the recent past, like Waco, but the unrelenting violence of the unfolding siege drama recalls John Carpenter’s cult classic Assault On Precinct 13. The jittery handheld camera work from cinematographer David Kline, Smith’s long time collaborator, brings an unexpectedly dynamic, kinetic energy to these scenes.
The film has been influenced by the likes of 70’s horror films as well as Tarantino’s oeuvre, and Red State wears its influences proudly. The narrative changes direction several times throughout, which keeps audiences off guard and unsettled. The coda offers a cynical view of the paranoia and mindset of US government organisations in the aftermath of 911. Smith approaches the material with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but it seems that he has found some of that edgy, subversive quality missing from his last few films. The film is still suffused with that same low budget, do-it-yourself sensibility evident in his earlier movies. Smith is normally a deft writer of smart, crackling dialogue, but here there are too many passages of expository dialogue that he manages to slow the action down unnecessarily.
There are some strong performances though that lifts the material. Parks (from tv series Then Came Bronson, the recent Death Proof, etc) is mainly seen in Tarantino films or B-grade straight to DVD dramas these days. But he is compelling here as the charismatic but hateful, bile spewing preacher, and this is easily his best role for over a decade. His near ten-minute rant is fascinating, powerful stuff, but also has audiences cringing, such is its undiluted venom. Oscar winner Melissa Leo is also good as Cooper’s frighteningly fervent daughter Sara. Goodman brings a weary, cynical quality to his performance as the laconic federal agent.
At a rather brisk, packed 88 minutes though, Red State never outstays its welcome. Red State is a tense, gritty and bloody thriller that marks a drastic change of pace and direction for Smith, but whether his hard core of admiring fan boys will readily embrace it remains to be seen. A brief line during the end credits informs us that most of the cast will return for Smith’s next film, the two-part hockey epic Hit Somebody.