Michael Parks - Pastor Abin Cooper
John Goodman - ATF Special Agent Keenan
Melissa Leo - Sarah Cooper
Kyle Gallner - Jarod
Kerry Bishe - Cheyenne
Michael Angarano - Travis
Nicholas Braun - Billy Ray
Stephen Root - Sheriff Wynan
Kevin Pollak - ATF Special Agent Brooks
Kevin Alejandro - Tactical Agent Henry
Genre - Horror/Drama/Thriller/Cults
Running Time - 88 Minutes
Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter Christian fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.
Even though I’ve been a big fan of his Askewniverse films [still love me some CHASING AMY], I haven’t watched anything that Kevin Smith has directed since 2011’s COP OUT - which was an abysmal failure on all levels for the filmmaker. Because of that, I haven’t watched any of Smith’s films since, even though I’ve been very curious on how his horror input has been. It took me eight years, but I finally sat down and watched 2011’s RED STATE. Scary enough, the topics and themes of the film are still as relevant today as they were years ago, with the West Baptist Church still trying to push their influence on people, while the rise of gun violence in America has become a major concern. With Smith tackling the subject of religion in 1999’s DOGMA and doing it really well, I expected RED STATE to be a good continuation of that line of commentary in a more serious way.
Unfortunately, RED STATE continues the losing streak that Smith started with COP OUT. I will say its heart is in the right place and the concept of the film is definitely one worth exploring. But Smith seems to have lost all focus when it comes to writing and directing this film, creating a film that feels seriously bi-polar in terms of genre, tone, and even narrative structure. I had believed this film to be a horror film, but it’s anything but in the traditional sense. I would have been more than okay with that if RED STATE knew exactly what film it actually wanted to be. I finished the film more confused than normal, not sure what I was supposed to think about it.
Let me just get the good stuff out of the way. I thought the acting was really great, as it saves the film from being a total disaster and one you must avoid. In particular, the late Michael Parks [a favorite of Quentin Tarantino] is incredibly compelling in the lead villain role as Pastor Abin Cooper. Parks plays that common fear of a man of religious power spouting hate and twisting the words of the Bible to brainwash others in believing his rhetoric. Using the church as a dungeon to torture those he believes are an abomination to society - mainly homosexuals - Cooper and his family and friends believe what they’re doing is right because they want to save the world from what they consider “evil”, even though they do bad things like kill innocent people and steal firearms in order to display the power they believe they inherited from God. Parks plays the role to perfection as a man who doesn’t fear the consequences of his actions, feeling that he’ll end up in paradise with God in the afterlife for “cleansing the sins of immoral people”. Humanity is freaking scary, and Parks portrays that convincingly.
I also thought John Goodman did really well in his role as ATF Special Agent Keenan, the opposite side of Cooper’s coin. Goodman is fantastic in anything he’s in, regardless of the quality of the film he’s involved with. RED STATE is no exception. Keenan also believes in the good of society and wants this Church taken down because they’re terrorizing this small town. When he’s given orders from superiors that he doesn’t agree with, Keenan struggles with that decision, leading to violent consequences he wanted to avoid. Goodman plays this resignation and struggle believably, making Keenan the only real character you sort of care about.
The other actors also do well, especially Melissa Leo as Cooper’s daughter, and Kevin Alejandro as a tactical agent who struggles with Keenan. The younger actors, especially Kyle Gallner and Kerry Bishe, put on capable performances that border on sympathy at times. The actors did their damndest to make this script seem better than it actually is. For that, much respect to all of them to keeping RED STATE somewhat watchable.
And while it’s not his strongest visual presentation, I thought Kevin Smith did alright as a director here. Using more of a handheld, shaky cam feel rather than a static focus, Smith shoots the film well and tries to add some style. In a lot of ways, I feel like Smith was inspired by other directors here, especially Tarantino and Rob Zombie at times, aping their visual flourishes to tell a compelling narrative - at least in his mind anyway. It had a more realistic and gritty feel than his previous works, so I applaud Smith for doing something out of his comfort zone. Even if RED STATE wasn’t a total success, Smith gets points for experimenting and trying out something new. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can learn from your mistakes.
The rest of the film is a disappointment though. The screenplay is all over the place, making it a tough film to really get into. It’s a shame because the commentary is easy to understand and relate with on some levels, as terrorism based on religion and massive gun violence are topics many people face each and every day. These are topics that gain a ton of media coverage. And if you follow him on Twitter, Kevin Smith is very passionate and opinionated on these social issues. But that’s what the script for RED STATE reads like - a bunch of Twitter rants from Smith, but taped and glued together to make a 90-minute movie. There’s no subtlety in this film, as Smith hammers you in the head over and over again on his views of the matter at hand. There’s this great 11-minute monologue by Michael Parks, preaching to his followers about the evils of society and how they’re doing God’s work by taking care of these so-called “sinners” themselves. This one monologue tells you everything you need to know about Parks’ character, the situation at hand and what the film is trying to tell you. But it keeps going with other characters, punching you in the face about the commentary on both sides of the issue. There’s even commentary on how officers and the government would rather shoot and ask questions later, as if to say that they’re only in it to protect themselves rather than the people they’re ordered to protect. It’s not rocket science. Audiences can figure these things out on their own. It just felt heavy-handed, which is sad because these are issues that deserve to be address in many media forms.
The development of the characters is no better. We have three teen victims who are kidnapped and taken as hostages by this Church because they’re seen as homosexuals for wanting to have an orgy with a woman they met on Craigslist [which happened to be a trap by the Church]. This is a good set-up… if the teen characters were any bit sympathetic or likable. Being excited over a sexual conquest is realistic, but the way they behave about it is a bit of a turn off. Why would I care what happens to them? It’s made even worse when the main focus of the film is on the villains, who are despicable people doing terrible things because they twisted the words in a book to justify their actions. They lose people and they grieve. One character wants out to save the younger members of the Church. Others feel that they don’t care about life or death, believing that God will gladly take them in with open arms. These fanatics are awful people and all deserve swift justice for what they’ve done. But it feels like Smith wants to do his own THE DEVIL’S REJECTS in a way with these characters when it isn’t earned. The Firefly Family, regardless of their heinous actions, are likable characters and have a bit of a moral code when it comes to each other. These Church characters don’t because they only care about themselves. It’s jarring and it feels like Smith is showcasing the people he despises rather than criticizing them.
Even our “heroes”, the special agents trying to save the hostages and stop the Church, aren’t much better either. Only Goodman’s character, Keenan, seems like a fleshed out human being who struggles between doing the right thing and keeping his job to provide for his family. He’s in a position where morality doesn’t really fit into, causing him to second guess certain things before doing what he feels is right. Even at the end, he resigns to his position with almost an ounce of regret on his face. The rest of the agents and local officers don’t have any depth at all. The town sheriff is a closeted gay man who is too scared to stop the Church, fearing they’ll out him to his wife. He even shoots innocent people out of fear, just wanting the situation to end as long as his secret is safe. Others joke about the terrorist situation [the addition of comedy in this film is mind boggling and out of place], while another character just turns on a dime and kills people after criticizing Keenan about thinking to do the exact same thing. Who am I suppose to root for here? Does Kevin Smith even know?
And then there’s the ending. I don’t even know where to begin with it. Apparently, there was an idea for a different ending where we would find out that this whole film is taking place during the Rapture, almost proving that the beliefs of the Church was correct all along. I think that would have been a controversial, but interesting conclusion within the context of the film’s story. It also would have improved my feelings on RED STATE by miles. Instead, we’re given this flat ending that doesn’t do much for anyone. I’m still not sure what to make of it and why Smith felt this was a the next logical conclusion to his story. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen RED STATE yet, but I think you’ll be as hugely disappointed as I was over it. What a letdown.
And the last negative thing I’ll say - the mixing of genres did not work here. The film starts off as Smith’s version of HOSTEL in a way, eventually turning into a horror drama involving a cult, finishing off as an episode of CBS’ Criminal Minds. It’s cool that Kevin Smith wants to stretch his filmmaking style and try different things as a director. But stick to one genre and make it work. This would have been great as a full-on horror film, a full-on drama, or a full-on action-thriller. It bombs as all three-in-one.
THE FINAL HOWL
It took me quite a while to sit down and watch RED STATE, Kevin Smith’s first foray into directing a somewhat-horror film, hoping it would be worth the wait. Unfortunately, I came away extremely disappointed with this film, wondering what exactly I was supposed to get out of it. The acting, especially by the late Michael Parks and John Goodman, is the saving grace of this film. And while not a home run, I respect Kevin Smith writing and directing something other than a comedy. That being said, the narrative is a huge miss for me. The protagonists, besides Goodman’s character, are unlikable, while more depth is given to despicable villains that I’m not sure I’m supposed to empathize with or not - considering Smith’s not-subtle commentary against the Westboro Baptist Church, gun violence and government officials. The mixing of genres is jarring, as it goes from HOSTEL to an episode of Criminal Minds in minutes. And the ending used is really poor and fails as a satisfying conclusion. I really wanted to like RED STATE, but it just left me feeling blue by the end.