If there’s one thing you can say about Kevin Smith, it’s that you can always tell when you’re watching a Kevin Smith movie. Vulgar humor, pop culture references galore, and most even take place in the same universe. Indeed, the shared characters and similar tones are much of what make Smith’s movies so enjoyable (with the exception of Jersey Girl, of course). Which is why when the filmmaker announced Red State, I was intrigued. On one hand, I was sad to see him move away from the crass comedies I had come to mostly enjoy. On the other, I was excited to see what Smith could do with what seemed to be a horror movie.Perhaps true to the horror genre, what Red State ended up being is a Frankenstein monster, made up of 2 distinct movies.
The film is rather blatantly inspired by the actions of the real-life Westboro Baptist Church, the Calvinist/Baptist sect made famous by its protests of military funerals and radically anti-homosexual stance. Red State’s version is the Five Points Trinity Church, led by imposing patriarch Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Cooper’s church consists entirely of family members, including his daughter Sara (Melissa Leo) and her seemingly mute husband Caleb (played with surprising creepiness by Ralph Garman). The church believes in pretty direct divine retribution, and lures 3 teenage victims to the compound with the promise of a threesome with Sara. Needless to say, anything but this happens, and without spoiling anything, the situation at Five Points escalates quickly, eventually involving an ATF agent played by John Goodman.
Herein lies the problem with Red State. The first half of the movie is an excellently acted horror movie, fueled by the madness and cruelty of Abin Cooper. Parks is given ample room to chew scenery, with a nearly 20 minute sermon, and he delivers. His and Leo’s performances in particular are excellent, possibly worthy of some Oscar nods. The setup to the eventual climax of the movie is masterfully done, introducing us to the Cooper family without much outright exposition, and creating some moments of real terror. Suddenly, however, Red State decides to be an action movie, and it falls flat on its face. Goodman’s ATF agent is introduced far too quickly, and we’re thrust into a firefight with no real stakes to care about. Even the gun battle itself is disappointing, as it ends up pretty much just being a reason to kill a glut of characters. Ultimately however, the film’s most disappointing aspect is its unwillingness to make up its own mind. Smith isn’t sure whether to outright condemn Cooper’s actions, throwing in a weak subtext about the government’s treatment of radical groups.
In the end, Smith’s screenplay and Parks’ performance make for a compelling first half, only marred by a slight second half. While Red State may not be a perfect film, it is definitely worth giving it a shot.