Kevin Smith wants to put the fear of God into you.
There’s a story behind Kevin Smith’s latest. Smarting from the critical drubbing of Cop Out, the man behind Jay and Silent Bob decided to independently finance and distribute Red State, a horror influenced by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. He’s questioned the need for film critics and announced that after his next film he’ll retire from making movies. But all that aside, how is Red State?
Horny high school kids Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) drive out to a trailer in the woods to have sex with a woman they found on the internet. However, said woman is Sara (Melissa Leo), the daughter of infamous local fundamentalist Christian preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who drugs them and brings them to the church where Cooper plans to make a gory example of them.
Red State certainly shows that Kevin Smith is capable of working outside of his comfort zone. The first half is highly effective, as the three boys find themselves held captive by the same man that they were discussing in school that morning. It also puts Parks, who’s probably best known for his recurring role as Ranger Earl McGraw in Tarantino and Rodriguez films, front and centre. We’re given a barnstorming performance from an actor who is making the most of a rare lead role. The fifteen minute sermon that makes up the bulk of this scene may drag for some but it’s a well-written piece of hate-filled rhetoric that’s chillingly delivered to the faithful men, women, and children. The rest of the congregations are less fleshed out, with only Leo’s crazy-eyed acolyte and her daughter Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) given much to do.
But when John Goodman’s ATF agent Joe Keenan is introduced at the halfway point, Smith’s focus shifts from the kids and things get a bit shaky. The inevitable Waco-esque situation becomes one long and well-choreographed shoot-out, but the lack of character development means that we don’t really have any stake in what’s happening (though some effort is made with Bishé’s attempt to rescue the church’s children). Smith doesn’t really want us to sympathise with any of the characters, he wants to show us the kind of terrible violence and hatred that blind belief can incur. However, this detachment means that his grip on the audience is slackened.
But the points that Smith makes, not just in the first half but all the way through, are valid. Cooper’s an admittedly exaggerated version of a very real man with an alarmingly large congregation. The bureaucratic decisions given to Keenan are horrifying because they’re all too plausible. The first half of Red State is a gripping, clever horror. While it’s by no means a failure, the widening focus and lack of characters to care about means that we gradually become less involved. However, the good outweighs the bad and there’s more than enough that impresses here to recommend it.
Verdict: A generally successful departure for Smith. Despite the slightly messy second half it’s an atmospheric, opinionated horror that’s well worth a look.