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Red State (2011)

October 19, 2011

written by: Kevin Smith
produced by: Jon Gordon
directed by: Kevin Smith
rating: R (for strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity, and pervasive language)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: January 23, 2011 (Sundance), June 28, 2011 (New Beverly Cinema), September 1, 2011 (VOD, iTunes, & ZUNE), September 25, 2011 (one-night select theatrical showing) 
DVD/Blu-ray release date: October 18, 2011 (and Netflix Watch Instantly)
The latest film by writer/director Kevin Smith is a provocative and uncomfortable departure from the slacker comedies he’s known for. “Red State” is being advertised as “an unlikely film” by the filmmaker, and while that may be true, one can still find Smith’s recognizable stamp in the film. While a commendable thriller, the film’s ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter along with Smith’s obvious perspectives and observations on extreme religiosity and governmental power, comes across a bit too heavy-handed. That being said, I respect Smith’s attempt at reinvention, as he provides the audience with haunting images and lingering ideologies that provoke discussion long after viewing.
Somewhere in the Bible Belt, three horny teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun) set out for some anonymous sex after responding to an anonymous woman (Melissa Leo) online. Little do they know, they are being lured into a trap and before they know it they are drugged, bound and hauled off to the ultra-conservative Five Points Trinity Church. This group of religious extremists, led by Pastor Abin Cooper (an intense Michael Parks) and his family, surrounded by faithful sheep, are out to rid the world of homosexuals and sexual deviants in the name of the Lord. The only time they leave their compound is to stage public demonstrations or to protest funerals with picket signs that say, “God Hates Fagots”.  
But it’s on their own grounds where they can really do God’s work. Cooper spins a windy sermon that includes how God protected Noah and his family while washing away the wicked, all within earshot of these frightened boys who fear for their lives. But their lives are already dead to Cooper, becasue they don’t fear God.
As if the anxiety isn’t already building, the entire situation takes a heightened nosedive when certain circumstances result in a team of armed ATF agents surrounding the area. Led by the harried Agent Keenan (John Goodman), who must deal with higher-ups who greenlight a motion to kill everyone, deeming them a “domestic terrorist cell”, the entire event becomes a bloody mess. 
It’s obvious what’s going on here. Smith is taking the recent activities of Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist frontman of the Westboro Baptist Church and merging them with past events like Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege in the early ’90s. Even though Smith maintains an appropriate unpredictable atmosphere with a frenzied tone (thanks to cinematography by David Klein, who provides an over-saturated palette with jittery handheld camerawork) throughout, he unfortunately gets in the way of his creation. 
When the teens make a break for it in the compound, the kinetic action will have you on the edge of your seat. Take a desperate kid who doesn’t know where he’s at, who’s being trailed by men familiar with the layout, who already planned to kill, and you have an intense sequence. The editing in these frantic scenes serve to elevate the panic and fury of the characters in an indisputable manner. 
But from the exposition in the beginning regarding the Constitution and the broad hormonal characterization of the teens, to a left-field epilogue that has Goodman’s character reporting to snarky government suits, it just feels like Smith is too recognizable here for his own good.
It would have truly been an “unlikely” effort if only his presence was less apparent. The token Smith humor and trademark vulgarity can be found breaking up some very serious and chilling sequences. It’s an unnecessary move and acts as a disservice to the urgent predicament the characters are in. Levity is understandable, but when it weaves in and out of such dire scenes, something is lost. That kind of uneven storytelling hurts the film, despite some really good performances by the cast. 
Speaking of the cast, the mesmerizing work by Parks is the film’s strength. His gravely-voiced laid back attitude is at first a draw and then when we see the seething venom underneath slowly revealed, we are hooked. At times, Parks seems to ham it up a bit, but he such behavior seems to come more from the character than the actor. As he embodies this scripture-quoting, hymn-humming sociopath with an eerie believability. One unnerving observation is how Parks, Leo and the rest of the family all seem to have this black soulless eyes. That had to be a deliberate move as it adds an even creepier feel to the blank-faced flock. 
There supporting roles here seem like they are either too convenient, playing for laughs, or just trite. A bumbling local sheriff (Stephen Root) is given a closeted homosexual side only so he can be belittled and threatened by Cooper. There’s also Keenan’s ATF partner (Kevin Pollack, also in Smith’s last film “Cop Out”) who exists to crack wise and then he’s eliminated. Cooper’s granddaughter, Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) is left to look after the children during the madness and turns out to be the only sole voice of reason in her hostile family. 
Overall, “Red State” may have its flaws and is a bit uneven, to the point of injecting a silly supernatural element at the end, but it’s still an absorbing film with an interesting examination of just who are the bad guys. Surely kidnapping people and killing them is wrong, but so is storming into a compound blind and putting children in danger. Smith’s film is best when examining such misuse of power and fear in the name of God and government.

RATING: **1/2

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2011 10:37 pm

    Great review David. I just saw it and was blown away by how different this movie is for Smith. I like that he took a chance and wrote something so different than his usual stuff. The gore was over the top, but I didn’t mind it as much. Overall I enjoyed it.


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