Red State: by Edward Gambichler
“You better believe I fear God…..” – Pastor Abin Cooper ( Michael Parks )
One of the great obstacles in trying to compose this review of Red State is to try to encompass its director Kevin Smith’s film career. Yes, I could take the easy way out and compare him to the list of the early 90’s self financed writer-auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Richard Linklater ( whose movie, Slacker, served as an inspiration to Smith’s choice of being a filmmaker ). There are certainly similarities in each of their works: emphasis on dialogue over action, self aware sense of pop culture, and themes and subject matter that do not fit into a Hollywood formula ( such as a rom-com, or action “blockbuster”. What separates Kevin Smith’s career from the aforementioned filmmakers is that the majority of his films ( with the exception of Jersey Girl, Cop Out, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Red State ) have an underlying shared universe of characters between it. Five of his films ( Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma and Clerks 2 ) take place in this shared universe, known to Smith fans as the” Viewaskewniverse”. As a major fan of Smith’s films , myself, I can understand the loyal following these films have acquired ( due largely to his hilariously insightful dialogue ). And Smith, in his own right, has transcended his movies and become somewhat of a public figure ( whose personal appearances and speaking engagements usually play to sold out crowds ). He’s also regarded as an ambassador of sorts to comic book fandom ( as the subject of comics is frequent fodder for his movies ). Although he is to be commended for wearing this many hats, there exists the possibility that Smith has found too specific a “niche” in regards to his filmmaking and and there seems to be a reluctance for the audience to embrace an effort like Red State.
The film is set in an unnamed town in the Midwest. It is the story of three friends: Travis , Jared, and Bill Ray ( played respectively by actors Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun ). Like most high school teenagers, most of their energy is spent on devising ways to get laid. Jared ( as a result of this effort ) comes across a Craig’s List type of ad posted by a local woman, looking to engage in a “threesome”. The boys set out in Travis’ parent’s car to a trailer camp where supposedly the woman resides. There, they are met by Sarah Cooper ( played by Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, The Fighter ). Before they proceed to get on with the threesome, Sarah offers them a few beers, stating that the alcohol would help her “get up” to the sex. Unfortunately, as they start to get undressed, the boys realize too late that their beers have been spiked with a tranquilizer and they lose consciousness. Jared awakens to find out that he is trapped in a dog cage near the altar of a chapel. Above him he sees another horrified man, strapped to a cross and covered in Saran Wrap. He realizes that he is in the middle of a sermon being delivered by Pastor Abin Cooper ( played by the incomparable Michael Parks ). Cooper is the leader of the Five Points Church, an extreme right-wing religious sect whose views revolve around what they perceive as an end of the world apocalypse known as “the rapture”. They not only rejoice in their eventual passing over to the afterlife, but the fiery demise of those groups they deem hellbound ( such as homosexuals , adulterers, and “sexual deviants” ). As a matter of fact, hours before their confinement, Jared encounters Pastor Cooper and the Church picketing the funeral of a murdered young homosexual. The congregation is made up Cooper’s immediate family and their spouses and children, including Sarah. As Cooper’s hate filled sermon reaches its crescendo, his followers shoot the cross bound man ( who it turns out is a homosexual ) and dump his body in a trapdoor where Jared and Billy Ray are kept. Terrified at what they are witnessing, the boys try desperately to free themselves from their predicament. Unfortunately for them, the situation escalates when one of the family members is forced to kill a deputy who has stopped by to question the Pastor of an earlier sideswiping incident involving Travis’ parents car and the Sheriff’s vehicle. The Pastor, using evidence of a homosexual affair as leverage, tries to deter the married Sheriff ( played by actor Stephen Root, Office Space ) from investigating further. However, the Sheriff calls in the ATF and its head agent Joseph Keenan ( played by the always dependable John Goodman of The Big Lebowski and T.V.’s Roseanne ) in the hopes of having their task force take out Cooper and the entire Family. Between the blind and unyielding devotion of the fully armed congregation and the stressed out and equally strapped ATF unit, the lives of the three boys hangs in the balance.
I’d have to say without a doubt that this is Kevin Smith’s most polished looking film to date. He effectively uses shaky cam film techniques to convey the brutally unpredictable violence in the film. Also, his use of closeups on his various actors, especially with the brilliant Michael Parks, heightens the natural claustrophobia of the scene. You feel like you’re trapped right along with Jared in the dog cage.
This is Smith’s attempt at making a horror film and his choice of a villain is inspired. The threat does not come from an machete wielding indestructible man wearing a hockey mask that skirts our sense of reality, but a threat that jumps right off the front page of our early morning paper. There is nothing more frightening than the commonplace and the evil that lurks in our own backyards. With the examples of Ruby Ridge, Waco Texas, the Unibomber, and Timothy McVeigh as basis for the subject matter, Smith demonstrates that sometimes the most terrorizing thing in this world is how far some people will go just because they “believe” in something. It’s a mindset that he has become familiar with due to the various church groups who took part in picketing his fourth film, Dogma. With this film, Smith has also taken the unconventional step and distributed it himself ( despite the controversy of supposedly reneging on his promise to auction off the movie at Sundance for prospective buyers ). The film toured this past year in multiple cities with Smith himself holding a star studded Q and A session after the screenings ( one in which I had the honor of attending in New York along with Alternative Mindz’ own Rob Base, his wife Crystal and the rest of the AMZ family). It is now available on Pay Per View on Time Warner Cable and will soon be heading straight to DVD.
Smith hinted that this may be his last film ( citing his bad experiences directing the film Cop Out as a possible reason ). He was suppose to helm a movie based on the Warren Zevon and Mitch Ablom tune Hit Somebody ( the Hockey Song ) starring Sean William Scott and I hope he does wind up shooting it. It would be a shame for Red State to be his swan song. Unfortunately, the drawback of being the creator of the Viewaskewniverse is that fans have come to associate a particular and more light-hearted tone to his films. Asking him to end things on this film, would be like asking Martin Scorsese to make Cape Fear his last movie. A fine film, but ultimately not the one we want to envison him sailing off into the sunset with.