(by Dustin Putman
If "Red State" isn't necessarily Kevin Smith's best picture (for me, 1997's "Chasing Amy" still holds that title), it most certainly is his best-directed, signaling a vast leap forward for the filmmaker. It's unfortunate—and rather hasty—that he's so adamant he'll be retiring after his next effort, because finally, following years of going back and forth between indie comedies and bigger studio releases, he seems to have hit his growth spurt. It couldn't have come at a better time, either; his last movie (his first that he didn't script), the Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan buddy comedy "Cop Out," was an unthinkably lame, incompetent, literally laughless waste of resources. Smith has a lot on his mind with "Red State," so credit is due that he never spells out his messages or mixed moral implications, allowing each viewer to take from it what he or she will. Yes, he touches heavily upon the dangers of religious extremism, but he doesn't make a mockery of it so much as a pointed comment on hypocrisy, rotting fanaticism, and the tragedy of psychological conditioning. Most of the would-be "good guys" are deeply flawed and unsavory in their own ways, too, leading to an underlying discussion about how skewed right and wrong can get when people's belief systems and self-interest get in the way of their humanity. Article continues below
Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) are three randy teenage boys living on the outskirts of Middle American town Cooper's Dell who think they're setting out to hook up for sex with a 38-year-old woman they've met on the Internet. What they don't realize is that it's all a setup by the Coopers, a Phelps-like family of extreme fundamentalists who lure sinners to their compound and brutally do away with them. The madness is presided over by sermon-spouting patriarch Abin (Michael Parks), who welcomes death but isn't about to go quietly when ATF agents led by Joseph Kennan (John Goodman) show up on the edge of their premises and a standoff-turned-shootout begins.
Independently financed and wholly made outside of the studio system, the $4-million-budgeted "Red State" did not have to answer to any pre-set parameters during its creation, nor did writer-director Kevin Smith have to deal with any controlling producers' identity-snuffing whims. That's good, because the final product would probably look a lot different than it does now. Taking inspiration from the works of Joel and Ethan Coen (hints of 2007's "No Country for Old Men" are unmistakable), Rob Zombie (the guns-blasting third-act skirmish resembles 2005's "The Devil's Rejects") and Eli Roth (the very plot is but a religious-themed variation on 2006's "Hostel"), the film ultimately averts genre expectations, starting off as a raunchy teen comedy, moving into ghastly horror territory, detouring into a bullets-whizzing action pic, and concluding with a perfect satiric exclamation point. For a director whose visual sense wavers little beyond a bland point-and-shoot style, Smith's more ambitious vision for "Red State" is thrillingly accomplished, aided by cinematography from David Klein (2008's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno") that is predominately handheld but controlled. Cohesively edited and affectingly stark, the camerawork lends an authentic, "you-are-there" immediacy to the narrative. Especially chilling is the way the camera sticks with Jarrod in an early scene, trapped in a covered cage as the haunting sounds of fevered hymns being sung from outside are heard.
The first half is its better portion. Had the narrative continued down this path, remaining intimately with the crazed Cooper family and the three teenage boys' nightmarish experiences within their clutches, it no doubt could have ratcheted apprehension to hyperventilatory levels. After the guys are drugged and captured, Abin's ensuing sermon to his brainwashed followers down in an underground church is as icky and unsettling as one would expect (and also a little too short; Smith might want to rethink the edits he's made since the Sundance Film Festival premiere). What happens next, beginning with the horrific, torturous murder of a gay man (Cooper Thornton) the Coopers have also ensnared, is harrowing stuff, Smith's one mistake being his decision to cut out of this sequence midway through and sever the rising tension. This aside, the picture pulls no punches and defies convention as no one—not even the protagonists—is safe, deaths occurring just as they so often are: sudden, messy and without glorification. Furthermore, people who deserve comeuppances don't receive them as expected, and the actions of certain characters force one to always be reassessing whether or not they're purely despicable or worth our sympathies. This unsure appraisal most definitely pertains to Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), the grown granddaughter of Abin who decides she wants out of her current bleak situation even if that means turning her back on her elders.
The introduction of Joseph Kennan as the next honorary "hero" of the film is where things take a turn away from outright horror. With the ATF squad surrounding the building, a careless action on the part of philandering police chief dunce Wynan (Stephen Root) is the catalyst for an unnecessary casualty, a subsequent rashly immoral decision from those who should be in charge, and a shoot-to-kill standoff. With the Coopers no longer the only villains and the authority figures proving irresponsible and bloodthirsty in an entirely different way, only the kids—those who have grown up with their minds polluted, and those whose only downfall has been letting their sexual curiosity get the best of them—are anything approaching innocent. With so many warring viewpoints and diseased psyches, however, senseless violence is the only result. The second half of "Red State" is riveting, to be sure, but does start to grow repetitive as consecutive scenes threaten to turn into a whirr of bullets. Fortunately, there are detectable thoughts behind it and inferences to the characters' decisions that keep the viewer questioning in the best way Smith's intentions. It is easy at first to point the finger at how rotten and evil the fundamentalists are, but when the rest of the ensemble reveal less savory shades, too, there is no choice but to reevaluate what is being said underneath the surface, and why.
Michael Parks (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") brings enough fire and brimstone to his juicy role of Abin Cooper that it's difficult to envision him as an actor. He sinks his teeth into the part, chilling throughout but with a truly disquieting entrance as he's first glimpsed standing motionless alongside his family, who are picketing a gay man's funeral. Travis spots him as he and his mother (Anna Gunn) drive by, and it's enough to give him—and us as the audience—goosebumps. John Goodman first appears halfway through the running time as Agent Kennan, then takes over as the lead. This is as good a role as Goodman has had in years, giving a world-weary charm to a man who sees first-hand what can happen when someone takes an elitist stand on religion without bothering to understand or respect other people's beliefs. Melissa Leo (2010's "The Fighter"), fresh off her Oscar win, is dryly funny as the trailer-park woman the boys travel to meet, then wickedly cutthroat when it's soon revealed that she is Abin's abiding daughter. Michael Angarano (2011's "Ceremony"), Kyle Gallner (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") and Nicholas Braun (2005's "Sky High") are dragged through some emotionally high places as the teens who get the story in motion, making a decision that will severely and grievously change the course of what's left of their lives. And as the most morally unpeggable figure, Kerry Bishé (2008's "Sex and the City") indelibly plays Cheyenne, whose desperation leads to what could either be construed as deception or a wake-up call.
"Red State" is a brazenly liberated motion picture about psycho-ultraconservatism, the lingering effects of shame, and the contemptible ease of corruption in a free country that somehow lost its way during its journey to the present day. The film is not without problems, certainly. Kevin Smith's love for his own words shines through several times, edging toward pretentiousness when the dialogue gets a little too verbose (this happens twice during scenes when Agent Kennan is talking on the phone). There are also two parts in particular—one set in a classroom, the other during Abin's sermon—where information is unnaturally and rather clunkily stated for no purpose other than to provide exposition to the viewer. As mentioned, the momentum is also harmed when the film shies away from its more overt horror elements almost as quickly as they're introduced. With all that said, "Red State" is defiantly and admirably its own being, drawing from other directors and works in tone and style and archetypal plot elements, but daring to confront hot-button topics like religion and politics in a fresh, unpreachy way. It's a smart, mature film from a man who, now, has artistically come-of-age.