The online media has already made so much of Kevin Smith and his antagonistic antics that the story of the film’s screening at Sundance and it’s subsequent tour have been covered by much better reporters than myself. At a certain point it’s healthy to separate the artist from his art, so this piece will be entirely devoted to Red State as a film, not as a statement on contemporary marketing or the cult of personality.*
And as a film, Red State is a perfectly decent piece of entertainment. Smith is known for his comedies, and this is anything but. The film follows three teen boys who have chosen to respond to an ad on Craigslist soliciting sex. When the trio meet the middle aged Sarah, she drugs their drinks and they wind up in the cellar of Pastor Abin Cooper’s church. Cooper is modeled after Fred Phelps, the fear-mongering pastor whose congregation protests soldier’s funeral and proudly proclaims: “God hates fags.”
Phelps is an inspired springboard for Cooper, a man so demented he goes beyond simply protesting funerals. He and his family worship the Lord by day and murder sinners by night, giving them more and more funerals to protest. The young teens must fight to escape Cooper’s compound just as ATF troops arrive to take out the unhinged preacher and his cult of followers. Chaos ensues, and as the bodies hit the floor and pile high Smith shows off a flair for the bleak that could make the less desensitized among us sick to their stomachs.
The film is packed with solid performances, from Academy Award winner Melissa Leo as Sarah to John Goodman as ATF commander Keenan. Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun bring a slight complexity to the three teens, giving them just the right amount of humanity so we care if/when they don’t make it out of Cooper’s Dell alive. Braun especially makes use of his screen time well, and having just seen him in Prom as a completely different type, I expect to see strong work from him in the future.
The standout is, of course, Michael Parks as Abin Cooper. Cooper is chilling not by being intentionally creepy or vulgar, but rather being a genuinely nice guy. His body language and speech patterns suggest a kindly grandfather who gives sound advice. But Cooper’s advice is the farthest thing from sound imaginable.
The horror element of this film doesn’t come from jump scares and violence (although there’s plenty of the latter), but rather the genuinely insane world-views that spill out of Cooper and his family’s mouths. Smith goes out of his way to establish that ultra-conservatives, the Phelps, even Nazis have denounced Cooper as a loon. He wants it made clear: Cooper is one hardcore son of a bitch.
Unfortunately, this push away from any real world baseline hurts the film in the long run. Smith isn’t really making a statement here; he’s just using caricatures to craft a horror film that many thought wasn’t in his wheelhouse. He also pushes his limits when it comes to structure, and he doesn’t quite succeed. It’s clear he wrote this after a weekend binge of films by Tarantino and the Coen brothers, and Red State is plainly meant to be a mesh of No Country For Old Men, Fargo, and Inglourious Basterds. The film is unpredictable, I’ll give Smith credit for that, and he gets a good handle on the violence as well. There’s nothing cool or glorious here, just stomach turning. But when it’s all over and the credits roll, there’s no after shock. Smith wants you to feel depressed, maybe even a bit angry, but since he skirted around before and refuses to point fingers, its unclear what the final message really is.
So we’re left with some great performances, an interesting premise, and a director doing everything he can to prove that he can do more than lowbrow comedies. If this were a first time filmmaker I’d be propping this film up more, claiming there’s a lot of potential here and something great is in the director’s future. But this is one of Smith’s last, as he has already pegged a retirement date after his next, final film Hit Somebody.
With that in mind, my final word is this: if you’re a fan of Smith, Red State is worth checking out. If you like weird, offbeat films and enjoy sifting through some negatives to relish the positives, this is definitely worth your time. But if you want something simple, straightforward, and easy, keep on looking for something else. Red State is a bit of a mess, but it’s an interesting mess, and it offers something worth chatting about. But it could have been so much more.
Red State is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, and Video On Demand and hits DVD and BluRay on October 18th.