This review was originally published on March 05, 2011
While I had nothing to do with this movie to necessitate a disclaimer, I am a longtime fan of Kevin Smith who has been known to play street hockey with the filmmaker. My opinion is what it is regardless, but I’m not hiding anything, so take it as you like.
Like most humans, I like to classify and label things, and Red State is one of those films where the term “genre-bending” is appropriate. While the film starts out in teen horror tale territory, it gear shifts its tone in so many different directions it’s near impossible to pin down or categorize in any other way. Hell, I can’t even fall back on “Kevin Smith movie” on this one (even though it is, technically; what that label meant in the past is not what it means here). So, yeah, “genre-bending” will have to suffice, label-wise.
The set-up for Red State is simple: three teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) let their hormones get the better of their judgment when they answer a Craigslist-style listing of a woman (Melissa Leo) in the surrounding area open to being the three-hole hub for the boys’ penises. The boys head out to meet the woman at her trailer in the woods, wind up getting drugged and wake up prisoners in the church compound of one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a pastor with a small, but dedicated, congregation bent on spreading their message of God’s hate for sinners, specifically homosexuals. Things turn ugly when it becomes clear that the message is not just idle proselytizing, and the church has decided upon a more pro-active form of dealing with sinners.
Michael Parks’ Abin Cooper is as charismatic as he is evil, and his portrayal easily finds itself near the top of the list of the most memorable Michael Parks’ characters. While his words and deeds are reprehensible, he still commands your attention; very little of what he says is all that nice, but I kept listening. Melissa Leo turns in another strong performance, simultaneously playing haggard, unhinged and religiously devout quite well, and John Goodman, making his appearance about halfway through the film as an ATF agent monitoring the church’s activities, delivers the thunder of a man asked to do a job he doesn’t agree with, but is damned regardless.
While Red State eventually finds itself in action movie territory, and the violence goes from isolated incidents to full-on, raze the earth brutality, it never winds up desensitizing. If anything, the violence is so matter-of-fact and sudden that every injury or violent act resonates, even in the rare instance when you can predict what’s coming. Anything is game; people die when you least expect it, and in shocking fashion, but it’s never glamorized. It’s straight-forward and it just happens, which makes it all the more disturbing.
It’s challenging to discuss the film outside of the context of its director, mainly because it is such a huge departure from what people may think or expect from a Kevin Smith film that it’s notable to consider. Sure, there are moments here and there that remind you that, “hey, Kevin Smith wrote this,” but, for the most part, the film is like nothing he’s ever written or filmed in the past. On an action or philosophical scale, Dogma comes closest, but even that doesn’t come close at all. Red State is a bleak trip through a dark world, complete with ultra-violence and uncertainty. As the film rolls along, so many things happen, in such a matter-of-fact manner, that I could’ve and would’ve believed anything the film threw at me. I mean, when your guesses and preconceived notions get tossed around as much as they do in Red State, it slowly sinks in that everything you thought you knew about films like this isn’t going to apply here. By the time the film’s climax rolled around, I was expecting any and everything… so of course Smith went to the one scenario I didn’t imagine at all.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, considering how dark and gritty the tone and look. The film pulls off an unsettling Devil’s Rejects visual palette that winds up being better looking than Zombie’s endeavor while still being ugly, dusty and faded. There’s something claustrophobic about the film’s main location, and I’m not talking the basement corridors of Abin Cooper’s church compound, but this general feeling like the film takes place on another planet. A very dirty one, filled with self righteous, morally bankrupt denizens, dressed in the armor of God’s hatred and armed to the teeth.
This is not a cheerful film, and you likely won’t leave the theater feeling all that happy about the world. Not so much because of the actions in the film or the fates of any of the characters (everyone, at some point, does something questionable that you can’t get 100% behind, so it’s less about following and rooting for a hero than it is about getting sucked into the world of the film), but because what happens in the film is not without precedent on a day-to-day basis. Sure, real life isn’t filmed quite so nicely (again, Red State looks gorgeous for a gritty film), but it’s not inconceivable that the film’s events could actually happen while we watch it all unfold on CNN, or read about it in our Twitter feed.