RED STATE (2011)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
Kevin Smith is a director I’ve been rooting for ever since I saw his first movie, CLERKS, way back in 1994. I thought that was a brilliant debut, and it’s since become something of comedy classic (well, at least a cult movie classic), and while I don’t think he’s done anything as good since that first movie, I’ve enjoyed some of his other films since [from CHASING AMY (1997) and the underrated, MALL RATS (1995) to more recent films like CLERKS 2 (2006) and ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008)], and others not so much [JERSEY GIRL (2004), COP OUT (2010)]. As a director, his career has been somewhat uneven, which is too bad, because the guy has a lot of talent.
So when I heard rumors that he was planning to retire from filmmaking, I wasn’t sure if I should take it too seriously. As a supposed “good-bye,” Smith was touring around the country showing his latest film, RED STATE to audiences who paid to see him in person as much as to see the movie. Now the movie is in limited release across the country – in regular theaters – as well as on cable OnDemand. The latter way is how I saw it.
RED STATE stands out because all of Smith’s other films have been comedies, with varying degrees of success at making us laugh. This time around, he plays it completely serious. It’s been called a horror movie, but I’m not really sure if that’s an accurate description. But the real question is, does it work?
Well, some of it does. Some people might be put off by the politically leaning title, but it’s actually not so much a political satire (although there are those elements, if you scratch the surface), as a tale of a Waco-like confrontation between a religious cult and government forces.
It starts out promisingly enough. Three teenagers: Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) are on their way to see a lady that Travis has been talking to on the Internet. She has agreed to have sex with all three of them at once. At first, they’re not too crazy about the idea of doing it together, but since they’re horny teenagers, they eventually get past their trepidations and decide to check it out.
So they drive out to a trailer in the middle of nowhere, thinking they’re in for a wild night of debauchery with an older woman, Sara (Melissa Leo), who insists they each drink a few beers before the big event.
Not much later, the boys find themselves captives of an extremist Christian religious cult, the kind that protests at the funerals of gay teens and stockpiles guns in a back room of their church. Led by a charismatic David Koresh-type preacher, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), they seek to “punish the sinners” they’ve abducted, mostly involving lots of Saran Wrap and bullets to the head.
Up to this part, the movie does have a horror movie feel to it. The desperate teens try to escape with their lives from the murderous zealots.
Then the movie’s tone changes, when we’re introduced to ATF agent Joseph Keenan (the always reliable John Goodman), who gets a call in the middle of the night and ends up mobilizing his men outside Abin Cooper’s church. The horror aspects dissipate, as RED STATE turns into a siege-movie, as the ATF has an armed showdown with the zealots.
Things take yet another turn later on, when the showdown goes in a direction we weren’t expecting. An interesting twist that, unfortunately, doesn’t go all the way with its premise. More than that, I won’t say.
Not a terrible movie, but a flawed one. The tone changes are a big part of the problem. If it had kept with the horrific feel of the first half hour or so, this could have been a top-notch thriller. Bringing the government agents into it all is logical, I guess, but takes things in a completely different direction that isn’t as satisfying (there’s a feeling that we’ve seen all this before – probably on the nightly news).
The acting is good, however. The teenagers are believable, especially Kyle Gallner, an actor who I like a lot, as Jarod. You may remember Gallner from movies like THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT and JENNIFER’S BODY (both 2009). He was also in the recent remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010). I actually wish he’d had a lot more to do in this movie, since he’s a strong presence.
Melissa Leo, who won an Oscar for her role in 2010’s THE FIGHTER, is good in her supporting role as Sara, one of Cooper’s faithful flock, and his daughter.
Michael Parks is very effective as the psychopathic preacher, Abin Cooper. Parks has a long history of being in interesting roles, from playing Jean Renault in the old David Lynch series, TWIN PEAKS, to roles in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL Part 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004), GRINDHOUSE (2007).
John Goodman, who is good in just about everything he’s ever done (he became famous as Dan on the sitcom ROSEANNE (1988 – 1997), but he’s since had one helluva movie career, especially his roles in Coen Brothers’ movies like BARTON FINK (1991) and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)) and offers a familiar face as a good guy who is forced to do some bad things, as ATF Agent Keenan.
Another standout is Kerry Bishe as Cheyenne, a cult member who doesn’t really want to be there and who goes to great lengths to save the children in the compound. I liked her performance a lot.
RED STATE could have been a lot better than it is, but I still liked it more than I expected to, and I’m not sure why it didn’t have a normal theatrical release. Despite its problems, it made me realize how much promise Kevin Smith still has a director. It was interesting to see him try out a different kind of movie. I’d like to see him take more chances like this.
Here’s to hoping that his “retirement” claims are just a publicity stunt.
I give RED STATE ~ two and a half out of five knives.
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares
L.L. Soares gives Kevin Smith’s RED STATE – two and a half knives.