Red State ** ½
Directed by: Kevin Smith.
Written by: Kevin Smith.
Starring: Michael Parks (Abin Cooper), Melissa Leo (Sara), Michael Angarano (Travis), Nicholas Braun (Billy-Ray), Kyle Gallner (Jarod), John Goodman (Joseph Keenan), Stephen Root (Sherrif Wynan), Matt L. Jones (Deputy Pete), Alexa Nikolas (Jesse), Betty Aberlin (Abigail), Kerry Bishé (Cheyenne), Ralph Garman (Caleb), Molly Livingston (Fiona May), James Parks (Mordechai), Haley Ramm (Maggie), Jennifer Schwalbach Smith (Esther), Elizabeth Tripp (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (ASAC Brooks).
Up until Red State, Kevin Smith has only made comedies. But his new movie has been a long gestating horror project. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Smith would want to make a different type of movie after all these years – after all, it has been 17 years since Clerks came out, and there’s only so many dick and fart jokes you can make before you grow weary. What did surprise me is that Smith, who has always been a better writer than director, on this project is just the opposite. Red State has a nice visual look that harkens back to the horror films of the 1970s. But it is the writing that lets him down. This is a movie where you can tell that Smith is fed up with the stupidity he sees everywhere in American culture – and yet the movie feels rather toothless and obvious – and perhaps worse still, dated.
The movie is about three lunk headed teenage boys, somewhere in the Southern USA, who decide to go see a woman they’ve met online the next town over. She’s interested in having sex with all three of them – at the same time. On the way there though, they sideswipe a parked car, but decide to deal with that problem later, and continue onto their destination. When they get to the trailer, they discover that the woman they are to meet doesn’t exactly look like her picture, but is instead a little bit older, and rough around the edges. This is Sara (Melissa Leo), but the boys don’t much care. One woman is as good as any other when you’re horny, teenage virgin. What they discover though is that they have not been lured there for sex, but instead as human sacrifices.
The head of the Sara’s family is her father, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a fire and brimstone preacher who takes his small, but devout followers out to picket the funerals of gay men – just so that we, and their loved ones, know that they are rotting in eternal hellfire. But that is no longer enough for Cooper and his family. They have decided to take the next logical step – killing homosexuals themselves, just like they are sure God wants them to. The three teenage boys aren’t really gay, but they’re close enough. After all, the three of them were will to fornicate with a woman at the same time, which is close enough to gay for Cooper.
Law enforcement gets involved, when they notice the car that was supposedly in the accident earlier on Cooper’s property. It isn’t long before the ATF, led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) arrive on the scene, and on orders from higher ups, start to slaughter the family. These people are terrorists, and there are to be no survivors – not even the children on the compound.
My problem with Red State is that it all feels like something transported from the 1990s. Picketing gay funerals and Waco Texas style raids by the inept Federal government feel like something out of the past here. America has moved on, at least a little bit, and while there are still anti-gay bigots everywhere, it seems to me that Smith is making rather easy targets out of the Cooper family. If he really wanted to be provocative, he should have had the family killing Muslims instead. I don’t hear very much about Southern preachers picketing gay funerals anymore (although, I’m sure there are some nutcases who do), but I do hear about protests against Mosques being built, and an idiot preacher in Florida holding a Koran burning party.
The point of Red State is to show that everyone in the movie is stupid. The end credits split the actors into three segments – sex (represented by the three movies), religion (represented by the Cooper family) and politics (represented by the ATF agents). We expect horny, teenage boys to be stupid. Hell, it’s practically their responsibility to be stupid, and the three boys in this movie certainly qualify. But we should expect our religious and political leaders to be more intelligent – to appeal to us on a deeper level, and be of higher moral standing. Smith’s point is that we can’t. Everyone’s stupid.
He may well be right, but he has picked an overly obvious way to show this. As the movie progresses, it moves from teen sex farce, to horror into action, and the transitions don’t go quite as easily as we hope. Gallons upon gallons of blood are split during the course of the movie, but after a while (particularly in the firefight that takes up the last third of the movie at least), it all becomes repetitive. Yes, this could well be the best directed movie that Smith has ever made, but it rings hollow.
There are moments to love though. Michael Parks digs into Smith’s dialogue – especially in an early scene in his church, and holds the cameras and the audience’s attention as he spews out his absolute hatred towards the world. John Goodman is in fine form as the ATF agent, who knows what he has been asked to do, is wrong, but does it anyway. He doesn’t care about right or wrong – at least not at first – but on covering his own ass.
In general though, I hope to see more films like Red State coming from Kevin Smith. He does his thing in comedies, and its fine, but it is starting to wear a little thin. Red State shows he can do more than simply tell dick jokes. Now, he just has to figure out a better way to say it. Red State shows promise from Smith if he wants to continue down this path – and I kind of hope he does.