Kevin Smith is impossible to ignore. From his humble beginnings of creating the ‘little-independent-film-that-could’ Clerks on a shoestring budget of maxed-out credit cards, to his current status as a god of podcasting and social media, Smith’s projects have always been talking points. In fact, Smith has done most of the talking himself. A self-confessed storyteller, Smith has explored 80s-style teen comedies (Mallrats), love and loss (Chasing Amy), religion (Dogma) and fatherhood (Jersey Girl) on screen, but just about everything else in his multiple podcasts, blog writings, Tweets, public speaking engagements and comic books. With Red State, it turns out he still has plenty left to say.
Three teenage boys head up to Cooper’s Dell, the home of the Christian fundamentalist Five Points Church, on the promise of group sex with Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo, The Fighter). They soon find that they have been lured into the world of preacher and family leader Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ), a man intent on cleansing the world of what he sees as its filth and perversions. Events take a dramatic turn when ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman, TV’s Treme) begins to set up for an investigation of Cooper’s Dell, and a Waco-style siege begins.
One bit of misdirection in the Red State marketing is painting this as a horror film. While there are undoubtedly violent and necessarily horrific moments in the film, this is not a film that can be easily placed inside a box. First and foremost, it appears to be a polemic on religion in America. The focal point of this rant is a lengthy speech by the formidable Michael Parks, spitting fire and brimstone at his assembled congregation. With one of the trio of boys in a cage, and another of their captives wrapped to a cross, the imagery is chilling. Red State, and indeed Smith, is most accomplished in these moments, suggesting the grimy and gritty horror of the 1970s and early 1980s (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left spring to mind), a period that Smith was undoubtedly influenced by. Yet as with all such moments in the film, the speech overstays its welcome by a margin, sapping the necessary tension from the scene.
Red State rapidly descends into an endless shootout, from both the hip and the lip, buoyed only by the performances of the leads. Parks is scary-good, and is certainly worthy of an awards-season nomination at the very least. Having made a recent career of playing the same Sheriff for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the seasoned actor owns this sometimes slender material. Likewise, Goodman brings his laconic charms to his federal agent, and provides the voice of reason in the war of ideologies. Yet the splattering squibs and hail of bullets that follows the first shot are often tedious, but not so much as the laboured and often simplistic Fred Phelps-inspired tirades. Seemingly not knowing how to end the film, we are met with more talking, and while the speech is well delivered by Goodman, it is a hollow anti-climax. Indeed, at a slender 88 minutes, there was plenty of room for the kind of character development that Smith has excelled at in the past both on screen and in his comic book work.
Kevin Smith needs to be praised for Red State. His unique marketing strategy has guaranteed an audience, and once again has given hope to independent filmmakers with a big enough voice to find a home for their own films. More to the point, with the possible exception of Chasing Amy, and his view of parenting in Jersey Girl, this is certainly his most mature film to date. There are plenty of great moments in the film, and this would be the start of a whole ‘new Kev’, were it not for his announcement that his two-part hockey epic Hit Somebody will be his final film. This is the greatest shame, for while the film is a little too patchy to be called his masterpiece, it is undoubtedly the film he needed to make to point him in the right direction.