From the moment Kevin Smith first mentioned Red State several years ago, it was clear it wasn’t going to be like any of his other movies. Although his claims it would be an incendiary movie that’s “so bleak that it makes The Dark Knight look like Strawberry Shortcake” turned out to be slightly hyperbolic, it’s certainly a new side to the director. It’s rare that making a violent horror/thriller movie can be said to show a director maturing, but this really is Kevin Smith on a different level to where he’s been before.
The director’s earlier movies have been a relatively easy ride, with fairly simple stories, plenty of jokes and a rather point and shoot filming style (that’s not to denigrate how much fun they are). While Dogma was an attempt to go a bit deeper, it didn’t quite work, partly because like his other movies, it felt like he was holding back, covering every attempt to actually say something with a joke. Red State doesn’t feel like that at all. Smith takes his gift for language, adds a highly kinetic filming style and creates something that has a very visceral impact.
The movie follows three teens – Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) – who think they’ve made a date online to have sex with a woman. While the woman (Melissa Leo) first seems like she’d be pleased to sleep with all three boys, she’s actually drugging them, and as soon as they enter her trailer they fall unconscious.
The trio wake up bound and in the company of a local cult. The infamous religious group is known for hating gay people and picketing funerals, but the outside world knows little about what they get up to within the confines of their compound. From with a cage, Jarod listens to a lengthy, hate-filled sermon by the group’s leader, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), which segues into the gruesome murder of a gay man who’s been strapped to a cross with cling film. While it appears the boys will be next to die, a series of events unfolds that turns things from a religious ceremony/slaughter into a full-on battle between the cult and the FBI, with the boys trapped in the middle.
With a strong script (only occasionally undermined by a jump in logic and a long, rather loose scene of ugly exposition towards the end) and Smith shoving the camera right in the face of the story and holding it there, it’s a far more gripping ride than we’ve had from Smith before. It’s not just when blood and guts are spurting that the film holds your attention, as Abin Cooper’s long sermon is edge of the seat stuff, partly because of Michael Parks’ wonderful performance and partly because the editing really holds the audience hostage.
The cult at the centre of the movie is based on the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps and his hate-filled family, who’ve made it their life’s work to tell everybody how much God hates them and why we’re all going to hell (especially gay people). They first came to prominence picketing the funerals of dead gay people – most notably Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a homophobic attack – and slain soldiers, but have since branched out to protest at everything from Comic-Con to the Golden Globes, but still with the same message that tolerating homosexuals assures America is doomed.
A lot of filmmakers (and Smith a few years ago) would have felt the need to make Abin Cooper a moustache-twirling parody of the real Phelps, but as Michael Parks says in the special features, they’ve gone completely the other direction, making Cooper more charismatic and seemingly sensible than the fatally dull Fred Phelps actually is. The result is that when Cooper is espousing his heinous point of view, it becomes increasingly disturbing because it sounds more reasonable than you’d ever expect.
While Cooper’s (and Phelps’ argument) is a ridiculous house of cards, it has a disturbing internal logic if you accept its assumptions. It ensures that the film isn’t just disturbing because they want to kill three boys, but because the cult can throw together an almost (and I mean almost) cogent argument that means they feel compelled by God to kill. Throw in a Waco type showdown and you’ve got quite a potent mix. Cooper is a true believer in what he does. Most cult leaders in films and TV are shown to be either liars or in it for the power, but Cooper has drunk his own Kool-Aid, which makes him all the more disturbing.
One thing I did wonder though was why Smith made the young protagonists straight. Cooper’s philosophy is nearly all about how gays are the ruin of the world and the agents of evil. There’s only a couple of lines to say why the three straight boys are worse than a gay person and therefore deserve to die (because they were willing to all sleep with the same woman). One gay man gets tied to a cross and comes to a sticky end, but it does seem little bit like a cop out to make the three boys straight if Cooper’s life is about preaching the horrors of homosexuality. It’s difficult to know whether making the boys straight comes from commercial considerations, an attempt to ensure the audience empathised more strongly with the characters or is it’s a comment on the fact Cooper’s ideas are more about hate than anything else – or indeed if it never crossed Kevin Smith’s mind. Either way, it does strike me as a little odd.
Overall though, it’s a very good movie and proof that Smith can be a far better filmmaker than even he would ever give himself credit for. He’s said he intends to stop making movies after a couple more films and instead concentrate on his new ideas about distributing movies (he self-released Red State in the US, taking the movie on tour). That would be a shame, as Red State is proof that when he allows himself, he can an extremely good director with a strong grasp on what makes a film tick and that he has a strong voice that’s ready to shout.
As always, Smith is ready to give good value for money in the features. He’s on hand to make things more fun and is so keen on being around for the features he’s even filmed introductions for everything. The lengthy (43-minute) Making Of Red State documentary and Conversation With Michael Parks featurette are both well worth watching, with plenty of interesting titbits about the movie and how it was made. The Blu-ray exclusive Red State Of The Union Smodcasts are also a lot of fun, with Smith and his cohorts spending ages talking about the movie and offering a lot of insight into the three year odyssey that making the movie turned into.
The must-see feature though is the Sundance Speech that Smith gave at the movie’s premiere last year. It became infamous for how Smith used the event to lambast the current film distribution model and set out his ideas for the self-distribution tour they eventually used for the movie in the US to release Red State (and which successfully recouped the movie’s production costs).
It’s also a film that’s worth watching in HD. The picture quality really brings out the subtly clever colour palette and production design and really comes into its own during the action moments, which become hyper-kinetic in hi-def. It’s a good looking flick, which the Blu-ray does a good job of showing off.
On one level Red State may be a teen splatter fest, but it’s also a movie full of interesting ideas, complex character moments, a visceral in-your-face attitude and a truly disturbing bad guy in the form of Abin Cooper. It may have its weaknesses (for example idea the idea of using the trumpets of The Rapture is inspired, but it’s followed by an extremely lame explanation for why that happened), but Red State is horror with brains and talent.
Overall Verdict: Kevin Smith shows there’s a lot more to him than the View Askewniverse, with a high-impact, surprisingly smart and gripping horror/thriller.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac