Red State = 4 out of 5 Stars
Pastor Abin Cooper: I fear God. You better believe I fear God.
I enjoyed Red State quite a bit. That’s the way to start something like this. Red State is an offbeat, dark thriller that centers on some unfortunate souls who get wrapped up in the world of sinister religious fundamentalists, before taking other twists and turns. While many feel the need to bring up all of the muck that surrounds Kevin Smith and his supposed “antics” when it came time to unleashing his latest film to audiences, I will be trying my hardest to leave all of that out and focus on the film, which matters most. So again, I really enjoyed Red State, which is a significant departure for Smith, who has made a career out of foul-mouthed comedies, this time delivering a no-holds barred (and occasionally foul-mouthed) thriller.
The film begins with three teenagers (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun) heading out one night with hopes of hooking up with an older women for sex, based on an internet advertisement. It should be stated that these teens live in a Middle America town that is located near the home of a religious fundamentalist group, headed by the Cooper family, similar to the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (which does exist in this film’s universe). Once the teens arrive at the trailer for their intended lovin’, things quickly take a turn for the worse, as they are drugged, pass out, and find themselves in a wholly different and much worse situation.
The teens awaken in a new location that turns out to be the Five Points Church, located in the compound referred to as Coopers Dell. As the boys find themselves tied up, the bleakness of their situation truly begins to unfold. Leader of the Cooper clan, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, eliciting the persona of Pastor Fred Phelps, while also delivering a truly devilish performance), starts a sermon, basically explaining his god fearing agenda, and the rest of the film becomes a bloody thrill ride, constantly shifting perspectives, without straying from its dark tone.
The film also stars John Goodman as an ATF agent, brought in to attempt to handle a situation that quickly grows out of hand, Melissa Leo as Sarah Cooper, Pastor Cooper’s devoted daughter, and Stephen Root as the local sheriff who is definitely in over his head. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that LA radio station KROQ’s own Ralph Garman has an effective role as Sarah’s husband, christened with being the Boba Fett of this film.
Kevin Smith describes this film as his horror flick, which does work when it comes to organizing this in a video store, but the film is somewhat of a bait and switch, as the film manages to have more and more turns in its story, eventually landing the flick in more of an action/thriller territory. I don’t find any of this to be a bad thing, but what should be noted is that regardless of the actual genre, what Smith exceeds at here, is building tension and creating a film that delivers a pretty gripping sense of intrigue and excitement. While I do not think it is the best work that Smith has done, it is certainly his most ambitious and stands as his best effort as a director. He has practically reinvented himself, taking his strong skills as a screenwriter and pairing this story he has been dying to make with a low budget production that had to keep him on his toes, as he focused on the use of skillful and appropriate direction for a film such as this. To that I say fly fat man, fly.
Many, including Smith, will be quick to point out the lack of much creativity in terms of visual style when it comes to his films. Red State changes that, putting to use handheld work, rapid editing, and other visual quirks that all help to make an effective thriller. The use of saturated colors and unflinching violence only further work to maintain the vision that Smith intended here. I am not sure what this version of Smith could have done with his older films, but whatever happened in the thought process for how to make this film certainly paid off, as the look seems to do great justice to the overall tone of the flick.
The lead actors are all quite good. Parks and Goodman steal the show, as they command the screen with their presence, delivering non-comedic, yet still Smith-styled dialogue. Parks in particular falls in line with many of the more memorable villains of today, an incredibly charismatic, yet evil man, who believes he is doing the work of God. The newly Oscar’d Melissa Leo is also solid as a woman complicit in the Cooper’s actions, with strong loyalty to her family. Finally, of the teens, Angarano (who I believe to be a strong, young actor) does a lot with a little, as he must deal with such a tense situation.
Another element I found to be quite effective was the lack of a score. Besides some music on the radio and some aggressive build up moments, the film lacked a proper score, which made for a more unsettling mood. In addition to that, once gunfire starts to go down, the sound effects feel all the more amplified. This only makes some of the more horrific moments seem all the more effective, as characters get into some pretty hardcore situations, which feature loud bursts of excitement in a very literal sense.
Given that I appreciate how strong the film is as a thriller, it does have its faults. Some scenes are a bit overwritten, particularly the sermon given by Parks’ character, which starts out strong, but eventually goes on, and on. There are other elements that would go into spoiler territory too much to want to comment on, but suffice it to say, I think some of the twists and turns this film throws at you take a step or two in directions that are necessary by design, but also border on gratuity. That being said, the film reaches a conclusion that is in ways terrifying, were one to be really deep in the moment, but is, at the least, completely unexpected and a great way for the film to reach its breaking point and keep things on track and satisfying as a whole. I was put off by the work of some of the supporting actors along with a few strands in the plot, but the ending of this film was strong enough to have me looking past these elements.
For a little more insight on Kevin Smith, regarding this film, Red State has been a project he’s wanted to make for years. Upon finally raising the money to do so, filming a project so radically different for him, and being genuinely in love with the process of making this film, Smith decided to distribute it himself, as opposed to having others pour money into a film that wouldn’t necessarily make so much more than it needed to back. Red State has been shown in select cities around the country as a part of a road tour, which has Smith and members of the cast providing a Q&A after the screening. As the film reached certain stops, Red State even managed to be protested by various supporters of the Westboro Baptist Church; including members of the Phelps family (it is during these times in which Smith and Co. had some fun by protesting that protest with humorous signs of their own). With all of this in mind, seeing this film came down to choice. Regardless of the speeches and rants that Smith has gone on, which have seemingly angered a portion of his fans, I remain a fan of the man. He is a great, hilarious speaker and I also have a soft spot for many of his films.
It was hard to avoid writing about what surrounds what has gone into the unorthodox distribution method of Red State (which is why I relegated it towards the end of all of this), but I still wanted to make sure the film came first. Red State is a very 70s inspired, nasty little slice of a thriller; and I mean that in a good way. Drawing inspiration from a number of places, Kevin Smith has created a film that is full of energy, strong performances from the leads, a unique story, and the kind of ambition could keep other independent filmmakers motivated. While this is very near the last stop for Smith as a writer/director, it is certainly nice to see him going out with a well done bang.