I've never considered myself a Kevin Smith fan. While I liked "Mallrats", what I've seen of his other works has left me unimpressed. When I heard he would be tackling a horror film, I wasn't exactly enthused by the prospect, though horror is easily my favorite genre. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten about it until I came across a trailer online. That trailer, combined with the solid cast Smith was able to line up, changed my tune, so I was excited to see the film available on pay-per-view. After watching it, I can safely say that it's Smith's best film to date, which in itself isn't the highest of praise. However, it's also one of the best films I've seen all year.
Through an online ad, three teenage boys find a woman who is willing to have sex with all three of them at the same time. They go off to meet her, but it turns out to be a ploy, and they soon find themselves held captive in the rural compound of Abin Cooper and his fundamentalist religious cult. Cooper's group, known as the Five Points Church, is well-known for protesting at funerals of gays and causing various other commotions due to their beliefs. However, the true extent of how far they're willing to go due to the demoralization of America will soon be known to their three captives.
Smith's films have always been heavy on dialogue, and "Red State" is certainly no different. The dialogue here, though, is no laughing matter, particularly as Abin Cooper delivers a lengthy, vitriol-laced sermon to his flock. Michael Parks ("The Evictors", "From Dusk Til Dawn") has been around for a long time, but never has he been more on top of his game than he is here as the Five Points Church matriarch. You hear hyperbolic terms like "tour de force" thrown around all the time, but Parks' performance in this film is one that truly deserves to be described as such. The hateful conviction with which Cooper gives his sermon and the psychotic glee when he belittles those who don't share his beliefs are scarily real thanks to the strength of Parks, who never misses a beat.
The dialogue and film in general are clearly Smith's take on Fred Phelps and his infamous Westboro Baptist Church, but the film switches gears midway through and throws in some commentary on the Waco/Branch Davidian fiasco as well with the introduction of John Goodman as Joseph Keenan, an ATF agent poised to take out Cooper and his clan. After the local sheriff gets wind of the church's murderous activities, he contacts Keenan, who has been watching the group for quite some time. Keenan leads several ATF agents to the compound for a simple in and out, but after his second in command is shot dead, his superiors inform him that no one is to leave the compound alive, hostages and children included.
From here, the film takes more of an action turn as opposed to the horror-oriented first half. We bare witness to a thrilling shootout as Keenan struggles with his conscience and unlikely allies inside the compound try to find a way to bring the children to safety. Anyone familiar with the events in Waco or documentaries on the incident, such as the infuriating "Waco: The Rules of Engagement", will definitely see the parallels between the real life happenings and what goes on here. Smith's film is just as much an indictment against the ATF and government B.S. as it is against those who give religious people a bad name.
Goodman gives the other great performance of the film as the ATF agent stuck between a rock and a hard place. While his confliction is evident even after he relents and follows the orders of his superiors, he really shines in his final scene where he must explain the events to two government officials. I've always been a huge fan of Goodman's, and his monologue in this scene is some of the best acting of his career. Indeed, belief is a powerful thing. It's what you choose to do with it that defines you.
Also in the cast are Academy Award winner, Melissa Leo, as Abin's daughter, Kevin Pollak in a "mind-blowing" cameo and the always quirky Stephen Root as the troubled sheriff. Smith assembled quite the cast for this venture. Independently financed, the method of release for this film has been odd to say the least, but I'm just happy to have seen it. The tone of the film is sporadic, always shifting and keeping the viewer off kilter. There is a little humor thrown in too, as is to be expected with Smith, but this is a pretty serious picture overall. If I had one qualm with it, it's the whole explanation for the trumpet bit, which seemed a little out there and overcomplicated. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed what Smith delivered here.
If what I've heard is true, and Kevin Smith is intending to retire from filmmaking after his next movie, at least he went out with a bang. "Red State" is a successful change of pace.
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