Written & Directed by Kevin Smith
Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Kevin Pollak, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Kerry Bishé, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner
When one considers the downward spiral that Kevin Smith’s career has taken lately, it can’t help but be noticed that it was with an obvious state of denial that he approached his inability to get any financial backing for his latest movie, Red State. In a public breakdown of epic proportions, Smith was forced to buy his own film after the film’s public screening at Sundance Film Festival. These signs, along with his increasingly horrible movies (don’t see Cop Out) give an indication that the film was in trouble, but, surprisingly, the film exceeds these lowered expectations.
Starting off as a high school kids up to no good, flick, we get the feeling that these kids are heading for disaster. They certainly are, but what kind of trouble they see, is not so predictable. They think they are heading towards a wild foursome with a middle-aged woman. They wake up in the midst of a church of the truly poisoned mind. This church, called Five Points, is like Westboro Baptist Church meets Branch Davidian. Their Pastor, Abin Cooper, is presented in the most charismatic way by Michael Parks. His initial speech is not so articulately written as it is delivered. Smith goes a fair distance as to making a valid case for something he most definitely does not believe. He seems to know, however, that if his crazy Pastor just goes the full Phelps in the first minute, the movie has nowhere to go. He builds the tension, if awkwardly (why is one of them in a cage?). At it’s crescendo, we get a true surprise. From here, Smith breaks from predictability, for the most part, keeping the point of view and the focus of the camera changing. This is a trick not often employed successfully in movies, with Hostel and House of 1000 Corpses being two recent examples. The result can be a little frustrating, but more often rewarding.
The performances here are varied. Parks has never been more remarkable. For his character alone, the movie is a winner. It is obvious that Smith likes this character, not for what he represents, but for the sheer depths of depravity he can mine. He understands that people like Cooper aka Phelps are not without charisma, and he takes a winning gamble in allowing Parks to present his character in more than a single dimension. This is the only character allowed to do so. John Goodman as ATF Agent Keenan seems to be a conscientious person. He goes through a couple of transformations in the film, but he always seems to be the same character, processing new, if contradictory information.
On the poor side, Melissa Leo shows that she is perhaps the worst Actress to win an Academy Award since Halle Berry. She knows only one speed: obnoxiously crazed. Less said about her, the more likely you’ll give the rest of the film a chance. Stephen Root is not so much miscast as his character is the most poorly written. Several of his scenes make no sense, other than to see a fat guy sweat and be perverted. Smith is mostly to blame here, writing a character that amounted to a liberal’s dream of the typical weak and hypocritical conservative. He should have put at least half as much thought into the Sheriff Wynan character as he did Keenan or Cooper.
The rest of the characters don’t hurt the story much. The acting is passable, and, except for a few lapses, the plot is more than serviceable. One could not help but being concerned with the way Smith presented the politics of the movie, Red State. According to statements, he was going for something to counter the conservative movement in the country. Had he made a direct political statement, he would have made a mistake. The overall message to the movie is somewhat garbled in its delivery, but, then Michael Moore has been doing political stuff for years and he rarely makes coherent sense. When you take this movie as straight horror, it works pretty good. Not being sure if this was Smith’s intention (because of his spotty at best record since Clerks), one would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. The last scene, with Silent Bob uttering a seemingly clever demand for the prisoner to “shut up,” leads one to conclude that in this case, the blind squirrel got a second nut.