In an unnamed state, the lives of three groups of people come to a bloody, and seemingly unlikely, intersection: three teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner) out for a sexual joyride with a trailer-park cougar (Melissa Leo); preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his hate-filed religious flock of Cooper’s Dell Five Points Church who picket gay funerals; and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) who is roused from sleep and told to obey the most grim orders of his career. A stand-off at the Five Points compound —bringing to mind Waco, Texas — brings sex, religion, terrorism, faith, politics, expediency, and deliverance all into play.
Having seen almost all of Kevin Smith’s films, and knowing the barest bones of the plot of Red State going in — a horror film about a psychopathic preacher — I expected more verbal polemic about the bigotry and hatred spewed by cults such as the Five Points Church (anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps and his ‘family” are name-checked), but the film I was expecting wasn’t quite what was delivered. While horrific things happen, it’s not really a horror film in the traditional sense of the term in modern film. And while there are more utterances of “fuck” in the first 20 minutes than most any other word, there is little of Smith’s generally scabrous humour at play. And while the ATF’s actions are certainly merited, given what they know — and they don’t know how bad things really are inside the compound — the reticence of Goodman’s character to carry through on his orders keeps the film from wobbling into “the government is evil” territory.
“God doesn’t love you unless you fear him.” So says “Daddy” Cooper, and Michael Parks delivers as the preacher who switches from being playful and droll to murderous and dark without missing a breath. Smith has likely taken Cooper’s sermons almost queasily verbatim from Phelps and other quasi-religious conmen, who utilize and interpret doctrine to make their agendas righteous no matter how horrifying the outcome. It’s also a testament to Smith’s script that from the moment one of the teens awakens in the church, to an unexpected element of divine intervention, the film and characters spiral unexpectedly out of control. There’s rarely a moment of unrealism to the proceedings, from the drab colour palette, muted makeup, and unflattering lighting to the cacophonous noise of an ongoing machine-gun firefight that erupts.
The main flaw to the film — at least as most audiences will likely find — is a lack of a rightful resolution. Certainly, there’s an ending, with some fitting irony, but most viewers will want something more. It’s clear from one character that despite their being the voice of reason — the real peacekeeper amongst the deviltry — even they aren’t pleased with the final judgment. But is that a flaw in the filmmaker, as in Smith not committing to take a final stand, or in the audience, who will likely imagine the steps they would take next? Given actions shown at the outset, could Smith have mirrored the sequences in the resolution, rather than merely hinting at them? Is he toothless, or is the audience ruthless?
VERDICT: Red State is tense, unpredictable, and features some excellent acting, especially by Goodman. Yet for all its good points, Kevin Smith brings viewers to a point where they’ll say “this can’t end well,” but the real question is, is it the fictional story that can’t end well, or the film itself? 8/10
Directed by Kevin Smith
Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Kerry Bishe, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, Melissa Leo and Stephen Root
In Theatres Now