– Summary –
Director : Kevin Smith
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Bruan, Kerry Bishe, Kevin Alejandro, Kevin Pollack, Ralph Garman, James Parks.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: Three young high school students hook up with a local woman for a gang-bang, only to be kidnapped by the local bigoted church in order to be executed for “their sins”. As they each try and escape, Federal Agents arrive to serve the church with a search warrant, only to become involved in a almighty firefight.
What we think : Talky, sometimes-uneven Kevin Smith feature goes for the jugular a lot but misses more often than not, thanks mainly to some merely-adequate dialogue sequences that just go on and on and on, before the film descends into a kind of action-oriented shoot-for-all. It’s shocking, yes, and it’s certainly not a film for those seeking enlightenment about…. well, anything. Smith, much like his previous theologically-themed film Dogma, once more takes aim at religion – this time religious extremism – and shoots it directly between the eyes, although the extreme violence and “horror” aesthetic he gives it feels more like a crazy mix of The Crazies and Deliverance than it does an outright horror film. Worth a look.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:23-27
Like many, I’ve been a fan of Kevin Smith’s work since I first saw Mallrats (I never saw Clerks until relatively recently, and must admit to finding it just a tad underwhelming – a review for another time!) and have followed his career as an independent filmmaker with keen interest. While his views on the wide variety of things he likes to talk about aren’t always the same as mine, I’m happy he has the platform with which to say them, and as long as he keeps making interesting, unique films, then I’m happy to indulge him some eccentricity. Red State, a film about extreme religious bigots and three teenagers taken hostage by them, is perhaps the least Kevin Smith-like film he’s done to date, in that it’s less a dramatic work of intellectual fiction with pointed commentary on some kind of social or political theme, and more an outright action flick masquerading as a pointed commentary on those extremist “we hate fags” kind of Christians who make other Christians look bad. I’m happy that a director is confident of his own ability to try something new by way of genre, and will always give them props when they get things right (even if it’s not all the time) and I’m happy to report that for moving out of his comfort zone, Smith has certainly succeeded in bringing us a film that stands tall amongst his oeuvre. It’s not without flaws, certainly, but the biting wit and pointed commentary Smith is known for is still present enough in between the gunfire to let us know he’s still pulling the strings.
Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Bruan) are three high school buddies who find themselves in a dangerous situation – they’re lured to an out-of-the way trailer for group sex with a supposedly willing participant (whom Jared met online), only to be kidnapped by the local extremist church, led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). They quickly discover their predicament is a matter of life or death, for the Pastor and his congregation preach fire-and-brimstone against the sinners of this world, and particularly the homosexuals they perceive as the ruin of mankind. As they try and make their individual breaks for freedom, they are alternatively pursued before they can escape and raise the alarm. Meanwhile, ATF agents (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) led by Agent Keenan (John Goodman) have surrounded the church compound to serve a search warrant looking for illicit weapons – weapons the church indeed has, and uses them in a last-stand firefight during which a large proportion of the congregation is slowly picked off.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, this film is going to shock you. Not for what it represents, but rather, for the way it’s presented. Kevin Smith, who directed a film previously with themes about religion, Dogma, returns to the well for a second round – and this time, it’s a more brutal, bloody affair. This time, however, Smith isn’t painting a comedic commentary on the idiosyncratic Catholic Church, but rather the hysterical overreactions of the extremist members of Christianity who ascribe to violence and murder in the name of God – those who decry homosexuality, immorality, corruption and all facets of human society they perceive as against God’s vision for Earth and use methods of retribution as some kind of deluded “mission” from God to carry out His work (in other words, all the stuff in the Old Testament which was cast aside by the coming of Christ, who ushered in a new age of forgiveness through his death – look it up, heathen!), and he uses guns, violence and guns to portray this methodology as a failed one. Red State is the kind of film which, had it been made by any other director, would have been a pure, unfettered horror/thriller, the kind of film you watch with your eyes hidden by your hands and the ratcheting tension amping up the potential for blood to be spilled. In a method I can only parallel with Tarantino’s penchant for taking on different genre and putting his own stamp on it, Smith has made a horror film with a lot – and a lot – of talking in it. Mainly from Michael Parks’ deluded Pastor Cooper.
You get the sense that Smith was channeling Robert Rodriguez while he was making this; Red State is bloody, horrifying and gruesome when it needs to be, and startlingly shocking when it doesn’t. The motivations of the character, from the trio of sex-crazed teens journeying into the backwoods for a gang-bang, to the sermonizing Pastor Cooper building up to a gruesome, kill-or-be-killed climax, are all grist (if you’ll pardon the inexplicably suitable pun) for the mill of Smith’s take on human madness in the name of religion. For that’s essentially what this film attempts to deliver, a look into the minds who distort a truth and a belief and transform it into justification for the most horrible of acts. Whether that’s Christian fundamentalism or any other religion, it’s a big red brush Smith is using to paint on this canvas, and it covers a lot of stuff. Red State, aside from its obvious religious commentary, is actually pretty entertaining, as far as Deliverance-styled horror goes. While it never gets into Hostel territory, the film’s overt bloodiness is extreme although justified; realism for the sake of shock value is undervalued by a lot of PG13 play-it-safers these days. Nobody’s making too many films where peoples brains are shown being blown out by high velocity weapons, but Smith does.
Graphic violence aside, there’s plenty to enjoy about Red State. The Bad Guy’s aren’t always clear – the ATF agents are given a change in orders after one of the officers accidentally shoots a fleeing hostage dead (I won’t say who) to just kill everyone, regardless of their affiliation with the church. So one the one hand you have Pastor Cooper brimstoning us for twenty minutes about sin and its effect on humanity, and on the other you have a Federal agency legitimizing sanctioned murder for the sake of reputation; you can’t tell me that’s not a nice argument there. The fact that Smith’s not afraid to kill off characters who we’d assumed would survive through most of the film is also a surprising – and effective – technique for keeping us on our toes, metaphorically speaking. Who will come out of this alive? You’d be surprised, actually. Smith’s not afraid to screw with his audience, and here, he does a lot of screwing.
If there’s any flaws with the film, it’s mainly in the scripting. Smith, with his penchant for a lot of his character talking – a lot – is once more on song here, with a particularly lengthy monologue from Pastor Cooper slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension as our trio of teens suddenly realize that they’re not in a safe place, being in that church. While I normally lament lengthy monologues used to try and build character in films where character isn’t important, this time I actually found it truly frightening. You, however, might not. Pastor Cooper is, in his own mind, justifying his actions in killing people, regardless of what they’ve supposedly done or not, and as the gradual horror of this scenario begins to coalesce into a shocking moment of murder, Smith never once pulls away, never once decides taking the safe route might be better – this is blood being spilled, and he shows it. Once the ATF agents decide to take down the church, a barricaded semi-fortress in an unnamed Californian valley, the film becomes less a Deliverance hillbilly nightmare and more an outright action thriller. Once the guns start up, we’re off and running with a pure, bloody firefight. The careful character study Smith had given us for the first half of the film, is shoved aside in favor of the rat-a-tat of semi-automatic gunfire and bodies being hit with ordinance. The vague overtones to the Waco Siege of 1993 are eerie to say the least, with Michael Parks’ character set up as a semi-David Koresh styled zealot, and it’s clear that Smith may have tapped into that conspiracy theory-riddled event to prop up his own film. Not entirely a bad thing, although using a real world event to crystallize the viewer’s emotional state towards what transpires here is something I’d not have expected from such a normally creative (and individualistic) director.
Another potential flaw for some viewers might be the lack of development for any – and I mean any – of the characters within it. Instead of focusing on a single character as our main focal point, or even a small group of two or three main characters, Smith lets the film play out as it might in real life and avoids giving any single character an genuine “starring” role – because any of our characters could bite a bullet next; perhaps it’s a way of Smith keeping the audience off balance, by not allowing us to connect with a specific character, but instead making us feel something for all of them. I’m not sure everyone’s going to like this style of storytelling, although it does work on its own merits as a device in many modern nightmare-thrillers, although I think Smith’s unable to truly get the balance between this style and his own normal one quite right. In attempting to make every kill and every shot count, he sometimes overstretches the audience’s ability to latch onto something emotional within the story, and that’s where the film gets the wobbles.
One of the things I actually loved about Red State was the lack of oppressive shadows and darkness. So many films like this are virtually unwatchable thanks to the pall of a vast night setting or lots of dark rooms – Smith manages to keep this film bright and lit (for the most part) and I, for one, appreciated being able to see what was going on. Sure, there’s darkness around (particularly during the initial sexually charged sequences), but the firefight in the film’s last half occurs during daylight hours, meaning everything is laid bare in God’s bright sunshine. Smith’s carves up the screen once the bullets fly, with a solid ability to generate excitement as things go from bad to horribly worse. Humanity descending into madness was a running theme in Pastor Cooper’s sermons, and that theme is borne out in the eventual climax of the film. It’s a suckerpunch ending, the one in Red State, and I suspect it’s the kind of ending a lot of folks despise – the cop out. Smith chooses to fade to black with a “a few days later” ending, showing the fallout from the confrontation with dialogue instead of action, robbing viewers who’ve had their expectations for a final, bloody head-shot to the Pastor (I know I was expecting it, almost anticipating it, in a sense) built up over the previous 90 minutes. Horrendous people sometimes don’t always get quite what they deserve – they get worse. He he.
Red State is a remarkably shocking, brutally confronting, and altogether stimulating feature from Kevin Smith. Alongside his usual proselytizing on the dangers of unfettered religion, Smith delivers a taut, tension-filled experience into his own nightmarish world, and you’ll come out exhausted at the end. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, and there’s some flaws uncovering Smith’s lack of experience as an action director – mainly the fact that the film’s extensive dialogue robs the narrative of momentum crucial to building tension, a factor which will put a lot of folks off – but ultimately, Red State is a solid entry into Smiths filmography and one which points the finger at a variety of themes and punches them right between the eyes.