Directed by: Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith (screenplay)
Starring: John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Michael Parks and Kyle Gallner
Usually, Kevin Smith’s status as a writer/director mirrors that of Woody Allen. When he’s on, most notably in Clerks, he’s dead-on and when he’s off in movies like Dogma or Cop Out, he’s just dead. Red State marks a departure for him as a filmmaker in many ways. First and foremost is that it’s not really a comedy outside the occasional chuckle, and second is that the grotesque happens just as much as it is talked about.
Red State is neither a total success or complete failure. It explores a militant anti-gay Christian church in an unnamed state in Middle America. Though the church is meant to mirror the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, Smith distances himself from that as the church members lay down their picket signs and pick up automatic weapons.
The movie begins not with those religious nuts but with three horny small-town boys (Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano and Nicholas Braun) who answer an ad on the Internet to sleep with a woman. Early on the members of that church protest outside their school, but Smith uses this online seduction as a portal into their true world. The woman, Sara (Melissa Leo), drugs the three boys soon after they arrive at her trailer, and the movie abruptly cuts to the church.
Jarod (Gallner) wakes up bound in a cage covered by a cloth. Smith films the beginning of this scene inside that cage as it is carried and placed in front of a congregation as expletives fly from Jarod’s mouth. This frantic, close-up visual style is employed often in this film as an economical if dizzying way to progress the story. Sometimes it makes the movie feel cheap, but in scenes like this it places you effectively in the moment.
Following that loud chaos though, is a monologue that is almost pensive in tone. The leader of this cult, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), addresses his congregation about the evils of the world. Parks gives the movie’s most inspired performance, especially in this scene. Though the script is overly didactic, the charming way that Parks interacts with the children in the small crowd says more than his intolerant banter. He is corrupting them by smiling before he spews his hate.
Smith takes his time letting the true protagonist emerge. Federal agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) receives a call from the small town about the militant group. A muddled series of events have him and a task force outside the compound within minutes. He talks on the phone to an unheard superior who obviously wants this “domestic terrorist cell” taken down.
Violence ensues, though not the over-the-top bloodletting that you might expect after the church sacrifices a gay man who is tied to a cross. Smith attempts to pinpoint some semblance of humanity in both unethical sides of the situation he has created. Keenan is the obvious choice on the side of the government, but he has understandable trouble finding someone in the compound, so he kills most of them off in fairly rapid succession.
None of the three boys are likeable enough for the audience to root for. Their homophobia and misogyny are more subdued than that of the church, but the movie suggests that an environment that tolerates or promotes on that level will breed extremism. In a way, the members of that church are the lightning rod of a community that seems infected, though we’re given few examples outside the boys and a closeted, ashamed sheriff (Stephen Root).
Red State ends with Keenan explaining how things turned out after he refuses to obey an order to eliminate everyone in the church so there are no witnesses. Goodman does an admiral job of making this somewhat conventional character palpable. The church members get the showy performances, and Melissa Leo and Parks run away with the movie when they’re on screen, but Goodman keeps it grounded.
Smith attempts to make direct statement about religious extremism here, but has trouble making it hit home when the gun shots erupt. The violence is hardly comical or entertaining, and serves mostly as a transition between monologues. Where Red State succeeds is in challenging an audience to examine homegrown terrorism and how the government can handle it post-9/11. It’s inflated and preposterous, but also somewhat unsettling.