Review – Red State
!!Guest contributor Michael Pittman!!
Well might believers say “Fear God”, but is there anything more frightening than extreme religious zealotry? I’m not talking about devoutly following any given faith, but rather when belief is taken to that next level where flying airplanes into buildings or bombing abortion clinics is seen as doing God’s work.
Writer-director Kevin Smith’s latest film ‘Red State’ explores this question, among others, in what is quite a departure from his typical Jay and Silent Bob-type movie. Best known for his talky, edgy comedies (as well as occasional flirtations with buffoonery and a fascination with dick and fart jokes), Smith was clearly aiming to create something different with ‘Red State’.
Whether or not ‘Red State’ is best categorised as a horror movie, it certainly is frightening. What makes it so unsettling is that Smith has obviously drawn upon fact to breathe fire and brimstone into his fiction. Smith openly admits he was inspired by controversial Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps in writing ‘Red State’ and the shadow of the Waco siege in 1993 looms large over the plot.
In ‘Red State’, a trio of horny teenage boys, desperate for their first sexual experiences, follows an online ad to a remote area called Cooper’s Dell, which also happens to be where the Five Points Church calls home. Led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the church is infamous for its radical stance against homosexuality. The boys’ sexual expedition takes a turn towards crazy when they are captured by the church, branded immoral and enemies of God, and prepared to be made examples of during a hate-filled service. Matters only get worse with the arrival of government agents, led by ATF Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman). Both Church and State come under heavy fire in ‘Red State’ and, if you like your heroes and villains to be easily identifiable, you may have trouble working out who to cheer for.
I’m happy to declare myself as a Smith fan, and a big one at that. ‘Clerks’ and ‘Chasing Amy’, in particular, were very influential films for me as a young adult. In fact, I enjoyed almost all of his films. However, disillusioned by his last film ‘Cop Out’ (which he didn’t write), my faith in Smith had been shaken and I was a bit worried going into ‘Red State’.
As with all Smith movies, the strength of ‘Red State’ is the dialogue. He’s always been very adept at channelling the slacker generation, but this time also nails the dialogue for the characters of Cooper and Keenan. Smith’s acid wit is still evident, but he wisely steers clear of the toilet humour and pop culture references for which is famous. Also, in the past, Smith has struggled to bring credible action to the screen, but in ‘Red State’ he gets it mostly right.
Another positive for ‘Red State’ is the performances of Parks and Goodman. Parks is best known for his repeated appearances in Quentin Tarantino directed or produced films, featuring in ‘From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’, ‘Kill Bill’ and both ‘Grindhouse’ movies. Undoubtedly, he is the standout in ‘Red State’, balancing a challenging role in which he needs to be equal parts loving patriarch and terrifying extremist. Similarly, Goodman gives us a world-weary government agent who is stuck between wanting to do what’s best and what he’s being ordered to do. That said, Goodman sometimes doesn’t appear to be up to the role physically, especially during an extended gunfight. Oscar-winner Melissa Leo is also solid in a key supporting role, while Kevin Pollack gets some scene-stealing lines.
Where ‘Red State’ struggles is in the climax, which really takes a left turn at Albuquerque. At the height of the conflict audiences will be going “WTF?!?!” It’s such a shank in the story that you have no idea where it’s going … but unfortunately where it ends up isn’t a satisfying pay-off. Worse still, Smith’s seemingly caves into to his smart-arse inclinations in the end. Whereas most of the early parts of the film are chillingly believable (well, more or less), the end is basically ludicrous.
Featuring some great dialogue and a couple of outstanding performances, ‘Red State’ is a very different kind of film from writer-director Smith. While it’s nice to see him push himself and seemingly grow as a filmmaker, ‘Red State’ shows that he still has a bit to learn about making a horror-thriller. Although far from perfect, ‘Red State’ is worthy of appreciation for its innovation and willingness to venture into moral quandaries that make the audience feel very uncomfortable.
By Michael Pittman
‘Red State’ is released in Australia on 13 October 2011 by Curious Films.