Red State (Blu-ray)
Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun,Ronnie Connell
(Lionsgate; US DVD: 18 Oct 2011 (General release); UK DVD: 18 Oct 2011 (General release))
If this is how Kevin Smith chooses to “go out,” more power to him. Sincerely. After nearly two decades of walking the fine line between indie cult icon and meaningless mainstream unknown, he’s announced that he plans on ‘retiring,’ of taking time off to foster new filmmakers and new avenues of creativity and distribution. As an opening salvo in the latter, he’s come up with a imaginative roadshow release of his latest film, the horror-tinged religious diatribe Red State. Playing out in three distinct acts and handling all aspect of dogma with determined criticism, this is one brave and often brilliant film. It’s only failure? Suggesting that Smith, just as he’s about to curtail his original output, is sitting squarely at the top of his craft.
Three horny high school boys – Jared (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) are planning a rendezvous with a woman they found on “the Craigslist for Sex.” Located near the notorious Five Points Church, led by the fire and brimstone troublemaker Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), they’re only concerned about losing their virginity. On the way, they accidentally run into a vehicle on the side of the road. What they don’t know is that closeted homosexual Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) was in the car, and he’s intent upon catching the hit and run trio.
When they finally find their intended paramour, she’s a simple woman (Melissa Leo) living in a trailer. A couple of spiked beers later and the boys are prisoners of the insane minister. Convinced he can rid the world of corruption via killing off all “sinners,” Cooper’s compound is heavily armed, and his flock ready to defend their fundamentalist faith. This draws the attention of the ATF, and a field agent (John Goodman) who wants to bring them all to justice – he just doesn’t want to kill everyone inside the church in the process.
As separate acts, as well written movements meant to completely undermine the state of organized religion today, Red State is mesmerizing. Smith, always known for his witty dialogue and complex screenplays, delivers one of his best here, a rant and anecdote based dissertation which argues for the evil inherent in belief, as well as the misunderstanding of same from the outside. This is no hyperbolic missive meant to paint all Christians as fanatics. Instead, Smith sets-up a situation (a radical sect that believes in literal interpretations of the Gospel, especially when it comes to homosexuality) and then slowly peels back the layers of hypocritical ludicrousness.
Cooper can be very convincing, especially as essayed by Parks. He is a preacher who can turn on the evangelism, as well as speak the language of the everyday man. As a collection of preaching tics, he’s terrific…and terrifying…and telling. Since Red State isn’t out to support the position of the religious right, there are definite villains here. But instead of making Cooper out to be a maniac, or martyr, he is instead treated as the head of an extended family who feels the same exact way he does. Certainly the sentiments are questionable, but this is not a problem of raging insanity. Instead, these people have created their own insular world, and when threatened from the outside, they lash out in the extreme.
Initially, Smith clearly wants to comment on how wrongheaded belief can become. These people honestly feel that they can kill members of the community and get away with it, since the Bible makes it clear that they are (perceivably) in the right. Similarly, the sequence where Cooper lays out his teachings is stunning, logical without losing its lunatic edge. Once we see the bloody results of such a strategy, the movie moves into another calculated criticism. During this middle act, sacrifice and the uselessness of same are accentuated, the deaths of several noted characters creating a situation in which the promise of everlasting life smashes directly into the truth about mortality. Instead of gladly giving up their physical body to experience the spirituality guaranteed, they take up arms and fight back, ferocious in their desire to defeat “their enemy.”
From then, Red State becomes a reminder of why religion reacts so vehemently when attacked. Channeling controversial tragedies such as Waco while working in elements of the War on Terror and The Patriot Act, Smith suggests that neither response is right. Indeed, once the Feds show up and the big guns literally come out, the movie makes its strongest statement – religion results in violence no matter what side you are on. The faithful will oppress the heathen, the wicked with try and destroy the believer, the normal will pick on the extreme, and the ultimate decision on right usually rests on who has the better weaponry. If this was it, if this was all Smith had to say, Red State would be good. But a last minute shout-out to Revelations (and the resulting effect of same) turns are terrific film into a near masterwork.
Besides, this is not your typical Kevin Smith film. During the various action sequences and escapes, the director employs a few new tricks – cameras attached to the actors, interesting editorial choices and cross cuts. While the dialogue digs deep, the manner in which the movie is produced and put on film also demands respect. As for the acting, Parks is just perfect. It’s Oscar caliber work from the moment we see him. Looking ragged yet ready to fight, he spits out his sermons with incredible verve, His cadences draw us in, and his words reflect a recognizable set of dogmatic archetypes. Smith has always been smart about religion, and Red State is no different. In fact, it is one of the best films about the fallacies inside faith ever created. For every moral good the Five Point congregation believe in, Smith shows how wrongheaded and wasteful it is.
Though it’s labeled as “horror,” the only thing truly terrifying about Red State is how current and prescient it is. On screen are the discussions going on in every radical facet of our contemporary planet, from actual terrorists planning their next series of suicide bombings to Tea Partiers trying to return the nation to its Declaration of Independence roots. He’s not out to spook or shock you. Instead, the ideas are supposed to disturb you to the point of absolute dread. It’s weird, when you think about it. While his output has been criticized as of late, films like Clerks 2 and Zack and Miri Make a Porno prove that Kevin Smith is still a solid outside filmmaker. Even if he never reaches a real commercial zenith, he’s got his back catalog to support his legacy…and Red State is a one of his best.