To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like Kevin Smith’s Red State. I liked the trailer, but nothing else about it spoke to me. Movies about religion tend to either be preachy or view faith as one step removed from lunacy. Not to mention that Liberal movies about Conservatives tend to either generalize or demonize any point of view that isn’t Woodstock enough for their tastes. It’s a tricky subject to get right and most of the time the results are mixed.
There was also the nagging worry in the back of my mind that Smith would sort of drop the ball on a film with too much plot. I always felt that he’s in his element with pure dialogue and the most basic story possible, everything else just gets in the way of letting his characters go wild. I think it’s what makes him unique.
I needn’t have worried. The story is chopped and channeled like a hot rod of prose. It’s genuinely masterful in its ability to cut out all the fat and gristle and get to the point as fast and efficiently as possible. Elmore Leonard would beam with pride. Three horny teens are kidnapped by the Five Point church, a family of fundamentalists led by preacher Abin Cooper, played by the excellent Michael Parks, while at the same time ATF Special Agent Keenan, played by John Goodman, is sent to the church’s compound to serve a search warrant for weapons. These events lead to a violent clash between the two groups with the teens caught in between.
If this sounds like a setup for a series of action sequences, you’re half-right. Smith finds the right tone for the material and handles the chase scenes well, making them extremely tense without ever using them as a storytelling crutch. The meat of Red State lies in its many juicy conversations. The characters love to talk, and they’re never boring. Abin Cooper has a long sermon at the beginning of the film that I really enjoyed listening to. Some may find it too long, I didn’t. Smith knows how crazy the man is and lets him talk and talk and talk, letting him build a noose word by word and then hang himself with the sheer weight of his superstitious ignorance. What I especially liked about the portrayal of Cooper is that there is a likeable guy lurking behind the blind malevolent cruelty and you understand why weak, stupid people would fall prey to his twisted interpretation of the bible. Then, on the other side of the fight, we have Agent Keenan, arguably the “hero” of the film, but also painted in several shades of grey. He’s shown to be an intelligent and decent man who is unprepared to resist his orders when asked by his higher ups to use immoral methods against repellent people.
Seriously, I think this is Smith’s best movie. I may have enjoyed his straight up comedies more, but this is much better. It’s also Smith’s first film where he kind of ditches his minimalist visual style and goes for a specific sort of look. In a weird way I consider this a spiritual cousin to Woody Allen’s Interiors, both are made by people who are predominantly comedians and both are serious films. Smith has been having a bit of a hard time of late and he’s been kind of angry. It shows because Red State is an angry film. In parts it’s downright vicious.
The film has a few flaws. The pacing is a bit off here and there at the end, nothing fatal but some scenes drag a bit. Also, I never did buy that the ATF would behave the way it did or that it would be as cold-blooded as it was. Then again, the film was making a point that blindly following orders, whether it’s from “God” or your boss, is an equally repugnant practice. So I can’t really hold that against it, even if I’m not in agreement.
In the end, this is a solid film from a solid filmmaker. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good. It saddens me that it may be one of his last. There’s a lot of talent and love here. I will miss Smith. I didn’t like all his films, and I haven’t agreed with everything he’s said and done, but I will miss him just the same.