Love him or hate him, Kevin Smith has always done whatever he wanted to. Starting out as a true independent filmmaker with his first film Clerks, Smith has had his ups and downs in Hollywood. With his latest film Red State, Smith returns to his true indie roots because no studio wanted to finance his first horror film, a big step outside of his usual self-professed dick and fart joke comedies.
Red State is less a horror movie than an intense action thriller, but depending on your point of view, this may be one of the most horrifying films you’ll ever see. On the other hand, Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church probably see it as yet another affirmation of their beliefs. Ultimately, this is where the film goes wrong.
Three friends, Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), Travis (Michael Aragano), and Randy (Ronnie Connell), decide to go out for a night of debauchery when they meet an older woman on a website that says she is willing to have sex with the trio. On their way out to the small town where the woman lives, they get distracted and accidently sideswipe a car on the road. When they try to investigate, they get spooked and decide to ditch the scene. Arriving at the woman’s house, they meet Sara (Melissa Leo), who encourages them to drink up, handing them beers. Before they can get their party started though, the three pass out cold on the floor.
When they wake up, they find themselves held captive in a church, the church of Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a Fred Phelps-ish preacher who runs the Five Points church. Like the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, Cooper has created a fortified compound for his congregation to live in, away from the outside world. Also like the Branch Davidians, he has collected a chache of automatic weapons that has attracted the attention of the ATF.
By pure happenstance, the local sherrif’s deputy happens upon Travis’ damaged car, entangling the law and the church. When ATF Field Office Director Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) gets the call pre-dawn, he knows he is waking up to a disaster. Once he is on site, the disaster begins to unfold when Travis runs out the compound, making his escape, with an assault rifle, where he is gunned down by the Sherrif Wynan (Stephen Root) and his itchy trigger finger. Thus begins a siege against the compound, where the situation only gets worse.
Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe), who takes care of the church’s children, including her young sister and cousin, comes out to surrender herself and tells the ATF agents that there are children inside. When they won’t, or can’t, believe her, she heads back into the compound to try and save the children herself.
Meanwhile, Agent Keenan battles his superiors on the proper way to handle the situation, getting directions from afar that don’t coincide with the situation at hand. The rest of the film concerns the aftermath of the siege, and what was said and done during it.
As I mentioned before, there is nothing overtly horrific about this film. There are violent, bloody deaths, and thrilling sequences of action, but there is not much to be scared of, unless you’re scared of religious zealots, and most people aren’t. This is the fundamental problem with the script, Smith takes it as a given that these people are crazy, and therefore scary. However, the only people in the film that actually come off as scary are the ATF agents that so badly want to kill the members of the church. However, any level headed person will find sympathy on both sides, therefore nulling any horrific tension toward Cooper and his congregation.
Michael Parks shines as Abin Cooper, bringing an intensity and realism to the role that few other actors could accomplish. With a kind speaking tone he oozes charisma, making everything he says easily believable. The other star of this film is David Klein, Smith’s longtime director of photography. The crisp, handheld photography moves the story along like a jet engine.
Smith is not a filmmaker. He’ll be the first to tell you this. He is, however, a born storyteller. In his comedy films, his lack of visual aesthetic has never been an issue; his clever dialogue and unique sense of humor have always sustained him. Here, however, he has no safety devices to hide anything that may be out of place. Not to say that Red State is poorly directed, rather, it’s just not visually stunning in terms of blocking and framing. Normally, this wouldn’t matter, but with the verite style of camera operating, the sometimes odd directorial choices stick out.
Everything else aside, Smith has made another unique film. Very few films really touch on cults, or cult leaders, and while this isn’t exactly a strong psychological evaluation of the behavior, it is an interesting setting for an action movie. There are very intense moments, but again, I can’t call it a straight up horror film, mainly because of the subject matter, which doesn’t prey on the fears of all people, only the morally insecure.
So while many people might not find it exactly scary, it is a mostly well made, intense thriller about a subject that doesn’t often get a lot of media attention. I also know Smith has had his own personal battles with the Westboro Baptist Church, which further weakens his case for making his villains scary. We know, in real life, that Smith has these enemies for real, but they don’t do much outside of picket his films, along with funerals, as depicted in this film. Unfortunately, that just further makes a case against Smith’s idea of them being scary; Instead, it makes the whole film seem like it was made as a revenge plot.
The last thing I must mention, that doesn’t have anything to do with the film itself, is the way it was made. Made with $4 million from independent investors, Smith has once again bucked the system, going for an unconventional release, thus bringing the releasing platform closer to the norm. He first did a qualifying run at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, and took the film on a roadshow tour of the US, releasing earlier this month on demand, and later in the month on limited screens nationwide, with a DVD/Blu Ray release planned for next month. While this might not be the film I wanted to see from Smith, I commend him for sticking to his guns and getting it made the way he wanted it made, even when his longtime bosses at The Weinstein Company denied him the budget he wanted. Many filmmakers would not have gone to the great lengths he did to get this film made, which shows his passion for the story, even after he continually says he is quitting filmmaking.
Red State is now available in all VOD outlets, will be in limited release on screens across the US on September 22nd, and hits DVD and Blu Ray on October 19th, 2011.