Red State Directed by: Kevin Smith Cast: Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano Running Time: 1 hr 29 mins Rating: R Release Date: September 1, 2011 (VOD)/September 23, 2011 (theatrical)
PLOT: Three teenagers decide answering a kinky personal ad from an older woman would be a good way to spend an evening. Eventually they get tangled up with a violent group of religious extremists led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Parks). Things escalate once the ATF gets involved.
WHO'S IT FOR? It’s intriguing for both fans of Kevin Smith and Kevin Smith haters who hope for any reason to bash him. Also for those curious to see what a religious-horror/action-thriller filtered through Smith’s sensibilities looks like.
EXPECTATIONS: Very low. I liked a handful of people in the cast well enough, but the trailers left me with minimal hope. Add in the fact I’ve never particularly liked a Kevin Smith movie and I wasn’t expecting much.
Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper: This guy is terrifying. Whenever Parks was onscreen I found it impossible to take my eyes off him. That’s a huge positive, since he is given the task of delivering a 15-minute sermon in the middle of the film laying out the beliefs of his Five Points Church. Considering the film only runs 89 minutes, that’s a pretty big chunk for one actor to have to carry. In less capable hands this may have stopped the film dead in its tracks, but Parks kept me captivated – and terrified – until the scene came to its nauseating conclusion. The most terrifying aspect about this guy is he actually believes in the horrible things he’s preaching. That’s the best type of villain and Parks nails it. I wouldn’t simply say Abin Cooper is one of the best villains of 2011, though that’s certainly true. I’d go one step further and say Michael Parks’ performance as the Fred Phelps-esque preacher is one of the finest of the year. Score: 10
John Goodman as ATF Special Agent Keenan: Goodman’s character doesn’t enter the film until about 40 minutes in, and things do go a bit downhill once he arrives. It’s not entirely his fault. All the ATF/raid business is among the film’s biggest weaknesses. Goodman’s weary ATF agent has to serve as something of a moral center to the film and due to that he gets saddled with some bad dialogue. Unfortunately, Goodman isn’t always up to the task of making it watchable. He’s fine in some moments, but at numerous points – especially during the shootout – he is cringe-worthy. Score: 5
Melissa Leo as Sarah: Everybody seems to really like Melissa Leo, but I’ve never warmed to her. Here she gives what is probably my least favorite performance in the film, at least among the notable cast members. The role as a brainwashed member of Cooper’s family doesn’t offer her much to do other than nod and say things like “Preach it, daddy!” Sadly I didn’t think Leo did that particularly well. There were numerous moments I felt she was over-the-top, especially towards the end of the film. Score: 2
Rest of Cast: The trio of high school kids is made up of Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano and Nicholas Braun. They’re the ones who really get the plot rolling, but other than that aren’t given a whole lot to do besides act scared. They are all adequate, Braun getting a few laughs and Gallner having a couple nice moments when face to face with a younger member of the church. Stephen Root plays the local sheriff, a character that seems like he could be really interesting, but gets sidelined for much of the film. He has one strong scene in the early goings, showing up again at the end because the plot needed a member of local law enforcement to push things forward. Kevin Pollak pops up briefly and is present for one of the film's best moments. Kerry Bishé is solid as a younger member of Five Points who knows the situation doesn’t have to end in bloodshed. Cooper’s other followers are mostly types, rather than genuine fleshed out characters. They all do a good enough job looking like they truly buy into the hate speech they’ve been brainwashed to believe, but there’s not much else there for any of them. Score: 6
TALKING: Come on people. It’s a Kevin Smith film, so of course it’s going to be filled with talking. The trio of kids who get mixed up with Cooper and his flock do plenty of swearing and vulgar sex talk. It gets a bit preachy and long-winded at times, but it didn’t hinder the film too much for me. There’s a lot of exposition, particularly a painful scene in a high school classroom explaining exactly who Abin Cooper is. A long scene takes place where Cooper lays out his church’s beliefs, but Michael Parks delivers it wonderfully and elevates it. Score: 6
SIGHTS: Smith has never been known as a dynamic visual director, but much of this film looks good. It’s nice that Smith allows the camera to move a bit rather than simply leaving it stationary on people talking. The Five Points Church building is a nice set, especially creepy in the halls below, where some of the action takes place. There’s some choppy editing and much of the shootout is boringly shot, but overall it’s a decent visual effort from Smith and DP Dave Klein. Score: 7
SOUNDS: Abin Cooper gets behind a piano and leads his family in song a few times. A father leading his family in song might be a nice, touching moment in most films, but here it’s chilling considering the actions that are going on around the singing. Other than that there are a lot of gunshots and ominous blasts of noise to blow out your eardrums towards the end. Score: 6
BEST SCENE: Our first introduction to Pastor Abin Cooper in the Five Points Church. I’m sure many find the 15 minutes of preaching by Cooper to be tedious, but Parks captivated me the entire time. Things only get more disturbing once the sheet is pulled off the unfortunate man on the cross and Cooper and his family show what they truly believe in.
ENDING: Oh man, how I wish Smith would have gone all out with the ending. When those trumpet blasts began, I immediately perked up and wondered if he was really going for it. Having the actual Rapture occur might have been crazy, but it would have made Red State memorable. Instead it’s sort of a cop out (see what I did there?) and hits us over the head with some kind of message. Smith adds in awkward, unfunny humor for good measure, making the ending all the more disappointing. The film does deserve credit for making me laugh immediately before the credits with a person off-screen yelling at a ranting Cooper.
QUESTIONS: Why wasn’t the main character that gets captured by the Five Points Church gay? Surely Smith considered the Rapture ending, and with all the other extreme moments in the film why didn’t he decide to go all the way?
REWATCHABILITY: Down the road I could imagine sitting down to give the entire film another look. Not anytime soon though, because I think all of the ATF/shootout stuff would bother me even more than it did the first time. Still, I definitely see myself taking in Michael Parks’ incredible performance a few more times.
There seems to be a few different movies happening within the 89 minutes of Red State. It starts out as a weird, though moderately intriguing, high school sex film with these fundamentalists on the periphery. A short time later things shift into a Hostel-like religious horror film, before devolving into a generally boring action film in the latter portion. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments within the shootout I found interesting, but overall it was the film's weakest part.
Despite its short running time the talky nature of Smith’s movies might cause the film to wear out its welcome for some. Fortunately Michael Parks’ performances pulses through the entire picture, keeping it afloat during its less than stellar moments.
I’m no fan of Kevin Smith, so my expectations for this were pretty much zero. Perhaps my low expectations played a part in my liking much of what the film had to offer, but either way I’m pleasantly surprised. There are chunks of the film that don’t work, but what does work, works really well. This is a film that has polarized a lot of people (and will polarize many more), but by keeping an open mind I believe there are enough good qualities to be generally positive about the film.
I always try to leave my preconceptions at the door, but with the amount of baggage attached to both Kevin Smith and this film it’s hard not to have that at the back of one’s mind. Still, while Smith may get in his own way and stumble in places throughout the picture, I was able to find a lot to like about Red State.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10