With ‘Red State’, Kevin Smith has a done a complete 180 as a filmmaker. The writer/director known for being a premiere comedy auteur has made a gritty horror/thriller satire that defies convention. It’s a rather brutal film, one that’s shocking in its sudden violence and unrelenting in its tension. The satire is sharp, but never light. The targets are fanatical religion and the egotistical overreach of the sloppy hand of government, and such heavy topics are treated as such. There are a handful of laughs in the film, but they mostly are just story beats to get you to the next surprising moment or revelation. Smith constantly is switching up the focus of the narrative, both in terms of what the story is about and who we’re following as the “hero”, and manages to do it deftly, never losing the audience. That being said, this definitely is not a flick for everyone. Cross a bit of ‘Hostel’ with ‘Race with the Devil’ and throw in the famous Waco incident, and you have an idea of what ‘Red State’ is about. If you’re thinking that it sounds nothing like a Kevin Smith movie, you’re right. It doesn’t look like one either (more on that later), though the one strand is has in common with his previous work is strong acting. The entire ensemble is very good, but Michael Parks turns in an unforgettable performance as Pastor Abin Cooper, the man of God who will teach a number of people to fear God.
The start of the movie is almost your standard order sex farce. Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) are three friends who are sex-starved enough to answer a sketchy ad on a Craigslist-type porn site that seems to indicate that a local woman is willing to have sex with all of them at once. She’s located in nearby Cooper’s Dell, which is named for the family of religious fanatics that settled and live there, led by Abin Cooper (Parks), a man so extreme that even Neo-Nazis and Fred Phelps (the real life inspiration for Cooper, who’s referenced in the movie) have condemned him. The woman (Melissa Leo, fresh off her Oscar win for ‘The Fighter’) is real, but too late the boys realize that it’s a trap. Soon, they’re the captives of Cooper and his family. They’ve taken to murdering sinners, instead of just preaching against them. As the boys struggle to remain alive, an ATF agent (John Goodman) is called in to investigate a report of shots fired at the compound, which ties into his investigation of the Cooper clan buying a large amount of automatic weapons. Soon, the overzealous agents have turned the situation into a hostage crisis, one very reminiscent of Waco, Texas. The third act is a huge firefight, with a gut punch of an ending that will stay with you long after the credits roll. The plot is original enough to support the film, but the execution is so strong by Smith and the cast that it becomes something very special.
There’s no real “lead” role in the film, as the narrative constantly switches things up whenever you get comfortable with a character, but the most memorable of the lot is easily Michael Parks. An underrated character actor his whole career, Parks here essays an incredibly memorable character. Abin Cooper is the most dynamic screen villain since Anton Chigurh was portrayed by Javier Bardem in
‘No Country for Old Men’. Parks grabs you and doesn’t let go. The Academy will never recognize him, but Michael Parks definitely belongs in the fray for Best Supporting Actor this year. Next on the list of impressive performers is John Goodman, who brings both an earnestness and world weariness to his Agent Joseph Keenan. In a film with few, if any, redeeming character, he’s the closest thing we have to a “good guy”. The monologue he has in the final minutes of the movie is extremely well done, simplifying the carnage that’s come before this to a simple analogy that is as political and timely in this day and age as anything else we’re likely to see in a film this year. Also doing strong work is Melissa Leo as Cooper’s daughter Sara, who is almost as evil as Abin, as well as Kerry Bishe (coming off amazing work last year in the Ed Burns film ‘Nice Guy Johnny’). Bishe plays Sara’s daughter Cheyenne, the only member of the Cooper family with any conscience. The three boys all do good jobs of fleshing out somewhat stock characters, with Michael Angarano displaying a quiet and boyish charm, Kyle Gallner showing impressive intensity, and Nicholas Braun (the lead in Smith’s next and last film, the hockey movie ‘Hit Somebody’) being a lovable oaf. The rest of the ensemble cast does fine work in supporting roles as well, from Stephen Root as the town sheriff with a secret to Kevin Alejandro as an ATF agent following orders to the extreme, plus Kevin Pollack in a small role as a fellow ATF agent. Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Ralph Garman, Deborah Aquila, Betty Aberlin, and Matt Jones round out the talented cast.
While it’s easy to argue that Smith has written better movies before, he’s never directed a better movie than this. Along with his longtime DP David Klein, he’s crafted a kinetic film with dynamic cinematography. It’s reminiscent of the work Oliver Wood did in the Jason Bourne trilogy. Smith’s dialogue is not as witty as usual, but he’s dealing with different characters, so it’s not an issue for the film. His pacing is extremely tense and tight, a credit to his editing skills (which only fail on one occasion, to be mentioned next), and the murders/deaths in the film are handled in a way that Scorsese might be proud of. Though I’d still say that movies like ‘Chasing Amy’ are better in Smith’s overall oeuvre, this is easily his most accomplished visual work to date.
The film isn’t perfect, suffering from 2 issues which prevent it from being a complete home run for Kevin Smith. The first issue is that on 3 distinct occasions, the movie comes to a bit of a halt, preventing the intensity level from staying constant throughout (the occasion I’ll mention is Cooper’s sermon at the beginning of the second act. Parks does a phenomenal job, but it runs too long and may threaten to lose less patient viewers). The other issue is that Smith sprinkles in humor here and there, and it’s not completely successful, bordering on ruining the mood of the movie. Other than that, this is a high quality work that Smith should be incredibly proud of.
Overall, ‘Red State’ is a genre defying little indie film that is a major step forward for its creator. I really do recommend this movie wholeheartedly; as it’s unlike anything else you’re likely to see in 2011. This is a very early review, but trust me when I say it’s going to be worth the wait when it comes out this October. It’s still the first quarter of the year, but I think I’ve seen a strong contender for my Top 10 of 2011 list. ‘Red State’ is just that good.