RED STATE Review

I like Kevin Smith, why wouldn't I? The guy is an inspired writer and competent filmmaker. No matter the missteps he has had over the years and despite his odd venture into what felt like more mainstream comedy last year with "Cop Out" I still look at the guy as a reliable source of entertainment. It is clear he is still just as much a fan of film himself that he is excited he has the opportunity to create his own. For those of you who are not aware, Mr. Smith mostly dips his toes in the comedy pool only ever so often taking a stab at more dramatic topics as with "Chasing Amy" or even "Jersey Girl". With his latest though Mr. Smith goes in a completely opposite direction and tries his hand at the horror film. Though "Red State" turns out to be more violent than it is scary it is still a rather interesting and entertaining ride even if it only clocks in at a mere hour and twenty-eight minutes. There is much room for exploration and further character development but Smith keeps things brief and to the point except for one extended scene that anchors the most frightening aspect of the film: the religious extremist who is essentially a terrorist operating in our own backyards.

Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) makes some pretty
serious presumptions as to how God thinks.
Smith has always been interested in stirring the religious pot and with "Red State" he does so in the form of taking a Fred Phelps like personality and putting him front and center for both ridicule as well as a sense of showmanship that makes the audience gawk at his actions. The premise is intriguing as anyone who has no doubt seen news reports of the ridiculous actions these types of pastors and their followers take. Whether it be picketing at military funerals or gay pride events one has to wonder what, in the eyes of God, could possibly justify such actions. What train of thought, in any walk of life, makes those actions right? Smith attempts to shed light on this by introducing us to Abin Cooper, a Reverend at the Five Points church whose main theology seems to be that of hating the gays. As played by Michael Parks, he is a charismatic man, but never sways us to understand his point of view. He is a misguided individual whose mind we know will never change. He is indeed the source of most of the scares "Red State" conjures up.

Michael Angarano and Nicholas Braun beg for their
lives at the mercy of Abin Cooper's church.
What elevates the film above a simple direct-to-dvd horror flick though is not only its controversial topic but the caliber of talent Smith has gathered for his little experiment. Melissa Leo shows up as a follower of Cooper's, a woman of devotion that Leo is able to make not simply a supporting character, but an anchor for the belief system, a credible example of how the world view can integrate itself into every aspect of these peoples lives. Then we have old pro's such as John Goodman, Kevin Pollak, and Stephen Root who are absent for good chunks of the film do fine work as law officials, Goodman getting most of the screen time here as our main protagonist and the best source of a moral compass this film can offer. While on the other side of things, the film is set up by three young men, Kyle Gallner (A Haunting in Connecticut, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)) who is a horror film vet at this point. Michael Angarano who you may recognize from kid flicks like "Sky High" or "The Forbidden Kingdom" as well as Nicholas Braun who co-starred in "Sky High" and has since been in tons of TV shows. The three teenage boys give in to the horrible decision of traveling outside of town for some sexual escapades with a much older woman only to be made an example of by Cooper and his congregation. It is a clean set-up and induces a panic in its audience that is hard to shake in the moment, but once we hit the middle section of the film its as if Smith hit a wall himself and wasn't sure how to execute the story from there.

Joseph Kennan (John Goodman) wakes to a
disturbing phone call.
Needless to say, the payoff is important and instead of delving into the avenues that have caused the church to stay in power or exemplify the ways in which it affects the surrounding community we are given a shoot out and a thesis as to why these kinds of religious nuts don't deserve to live themselves. It is hard for Smith to be subtle when it comes to getting his thoughts across and that becomes evident in the second half of "Red State". Instead of allowing the story to give substance to the reasoning Smith offers in his script he has Goodman make life or death decisions, gives us well executed and manic like chase scenes that look great and gives the audience enough tension to squirm a little, but they never mean anything. That kind of evoked response may work for some horror films, but when one is tackling a subject matter that is as not only controversial, but as interesting as this it is hard not to want more. The film could have easily been a little longer and developed more of a conflict between not only church and state but church and everyone else. The audience wouldn't mind either, because despite Smith's limited dialogue, the actual story deserves to be more fleshed out than it has been. I enjoyed "Red State" at certain points, it drove home its point, but it didn't disturb me in the way I'm sure Smith initially hoped it would.