Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Stars: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman
Release Date: January 23, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival)
Red State is a shape-shifting film, much more than horror or another crudely clever comedy that its writer/director is known for. This is a timely and dark satire that produces some breath-taking scenes.
The film opens as Travis (Michael Angarano) is driven to school by his mother (shout out for this small role fulfilled by Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad). They pass the funeral procession of a murdered gay teen in their community. The Five Points Trinity Church is on the scene protesting with signs to the effect that "God hates gays," though in more colorful words. This Church is an exaggeration of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. Red State is set amidst a similar time and setting in a fictional town known as Cooper's Dell. The WBC believes in a heaven that practically nobody seems worthy to obtain. For "Christians" they are one hateful bunch.
Flash forward to the weekend when Travis has borrowed his mom's car and takes his equally horny buddies to meet, and presumably pay, a woman they contacted online for her sexual services. The teenagers are not picky, even if the woman is old enough to be any of their mothers. This first chapter of Red State is offensive and crude, but not unrealistic. It is a glum commentary on the youth of our day even if writer/director Kevin Smith meant it to be or not. Smith is a crass filmmaker and he knows it. He comes from a string of R-rated comedies (oh, and Jersey Girl), this being his first descent/ascent into horror. Even the film's poster advertises, "An unlikely film from that Kevin Smith."
The three teens become targets for the Five Points Trinity Church. They are "displayed" at a weekend service where the cult's leader, Abin Cooper, takes the stage for his sermon. This is also where Michael Parks, who plays Cooper, takes the stage of the film. This is an impressive monologue for both Smith's writing and Park's paralyzing performance. Father Cooper (as he is the father/grandfather of most in his congregation) is a hand-shaking and ceiling-searching preacher. He paces the stand, leans over the pulpit, addresses his audience and sometimes us in non-apparent asides. The film's writing and mystere are strongest here. When it is revealed that they have captured a homosexual (Cooper calls the man an "insect" that they lured and trapped on the World Wide Web) and will punish him according to God's will, we know this Church has gone far too far.
Academy Award winner Melissa Leo plays Cooper's daughter. Her and the others in the congregation provide hokey reactions to the sermon and appear over-the-top in their adoration. We get that the film is satirical, it would have benefitted from this distracting approach. Truth be told, there is no main character in Red State. Some come and some go for one reason or another, usually bullets seal the deal.
John Goodman's character enters the picture as an ATF agent who is called in after shots are heard at the Church. The film not only shifts focus on its characters, but genre. It becomes an action/thriller as different groups (fire)fight for what they believe. The cinematography is often bland, but when one character makes a daring escape we are treated to a high-octane sequence that is visceral yet clear. Red State surprises again and again. Even though you'd think the Five Points Trinity Church deserve whatever they get, some characters actually warrant our sympathy. The film is wrapped up in a very smart post script. When you want Goodman to play genuine, he is a good man for the job.