“Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.
The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.
The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.
The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.
With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.
Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.
Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.
Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.
This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.
Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.
Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.
* * * * out of * * * *