Sundance 2011: Kevin Smith's 'Red State' is Powerful But Not Perfect
by Ethan Anderton
January 24, 2011
When the much hyped premiere for Red State was finally upon us, so were protesters who are adamantly against homosexuality in the name of their conservative religion which apparently comes straight from the word of God. But then Kevin Smith himself arrived, with Jason Mewes in tow, with a sign that said "God Hates Mewes" and his friends brought other signs like "D*ck tastes yummy!" The film became an event even if Smith didn't follow through with an actual auction. Thankfully, Red State delivered something an auction could not: the triumphant return of an independent filmmaker after his debut at Sundance 17 years ago.
Yes, I'm calling Red State the return of the truly independent filmmaker that Smith was when his career launched after the success of Clerks in 1994. But there's no "snootchie bootchies," dick and fart jokes, or a Ben Affleck cameo. Kevin Smith has crafted what he calls a horror film, but what I found to be an engaging thriller with suspense, dark comedy, and quite possibly the best writing in the filmmaker's entire career. But does that mean the film is perfect? Not at all. Does that mean this isn't a Kevin Smith film? Certainly not. Instead what we have is a reinvigorated Kevin Smith with a new ambition who still knows how to write long diatribes and monologues, but has brought together an amazing assembly of talent both in front of and behind the camera that makes the director's hand almost invisible.
The film isn't exactly the most original story. It starts off like plenty of other horror films where young, hormone driven teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) find themselves in the hands of a merciless killer. But in this case the killer is actually an entire family following their religious extremist father Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) as he attempts to rid the world of sinners, or rather homosexuals, by killing them. Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo) has just brought in the trio of young male teens after luring them to her trailer by way of a hot and apparently horny girl's picture on a sex classified website.
Gallner's character finds himself in a cage in the middle of one of Abin Cooper's sermons while another man is attached to a cross but hidden under a sheet. Michael Parks shines as he delivers a powerful, eloquently written sermon with the most vile, misguided, extremist poetry. Parks quickly establishes Cooper as one of the most evil men living, and what's worse is that he thinks that God is behind him 100%. However, it's at this point in the film that pacing issues become apparently. Cooper's sermon literally runs for at least 20 minutes. While Parks is wholly captivating and the emotion he pours into Smith's words is admirable, there really needed to be a cut to something else.
But once the lecture ends and some blood has been shed (I won't say whose), the story quickly changes from a horror film to a thriller. When an ATF agent (John Goodman) is awoken in the middle of the night by a phone call, it's clear the other end of the line has some serious business. Goodman's character takes an entire team of armed and armored agents to the Cooper stronghold (which is revealed to be a house/church with a series of interconnected tunnels and an entire room full of automatic weapons and heavy duty rifles). From here the story turns into more of a Waco re-enactment with plenty of shots fired and blood splattered.
Honestly, it gets a little out of hand, and like Parks' monologue, goes on a little too long. Fortunately the performances always keep us engaged and invested in the story. You can say that the exaggeration and length of both the religious zealots and the ensuing fight against the law is over-the-top, but I think that's why Smith calls this a horror film. At the core of Red State is a genre film with characters that may seem like caricatures, but it doesn't make them any less relevant or powerful on screen. Is Smith's film preachy? Yes. Does that mean the movie should be written off as nothing more than preaching to the choir? Hell no. What Smith has done here is make a great stride as a filmmaker, and deliver a story that aims to tackle a real relevant issue in our society by way of a villain that everyone can hate.
Some people will think that this film, which has been said to send-up infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Fred Phelps, is unfair and nothing more than left-wing propaganda. But despite its relevance and clear reference to religious extremism, this is still a work of fiction. Goodman's character even references Phelps as being nothing compared to the madness surrounding Abin Cooper. (Plus, I think Parks should get an Oscar nomination the the pure evil that emanates from his performance.) The film certainly goes overboard with the zealous defense, especially by way of machine guns, but I think that's the idea. At the same time, there seems to be a lot going on in the second half of the film, and Smith may have tried to put too much in too small of a package.
Having said that, the film is sill powerfully dramatic, socially relevant, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. There are still some signature Kevin Smith jokes, but most fit appropriately in the story. While some of his dialogue feels contrived at times, it still brought a satisfied smile to my face as it smacks around the silly notions of religious zealots around the world. Red State is far from being the second-coming of Christ (though a certain part of the film will make you think it very well could be), but it is the second-coming of Kevin Smith, and with this film and his return to independent filmmaking without studio hands in the cookie jar, I'll follow Kevin Smith right on to his next flick.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 8 out of 10