by Rob Simpson
Red State is a product of controversy, from its inception to the furore surrounding the directors run in with the critic world and the bidding war he hosted only to buy it himself. If Kevin Smith had to go through these negative experiences to come out with Red State, it is to the benefit of movie fans as this is Smith’s most unique and perhaps best work yet.
The stage opens with three high school kids searching the internet for easy women to have sex with, most of which are in either New York or Los Angeles, except one. Driving out into the middle of nowhere they meet Melissa Leo, who states she won’t let any man near her with less than two beers in him. Unfortunately this is a honey trap by the Five Points Church. Operated by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the five points church is a fictional representation of the controversial Westboro Baptist church, only much more savage. Even neo-Nazi’s want nothing to do with the Coopers.
The public perception of the church is of the vocal anti-homosexual displays at funerals, behind the curtain this heavily armed family ekes out there on justice on those who practice flagrant sexuality or sexual deviancy, Cooper preaches to his flock about the love of god being informed by fear before executing their throng of victims. Eventually Special Agent Joe Kennan (John Goodman) gets involved making an already sensitive situation explosive.
Smith’s cinematic rebellion is far from faultless; the prime issue is the nature of certain passages. Of course, the sense of humour and snappy dialogue is still there, the problems reside in the axe that is being grinded. Just like the preacher who is vilified as a monster, the movie too borders on preaching its observations on post 9/11 terrorism policy and the nature of faith. These are two very different issues that optimise the constant evolution which could be seen as a lack of focus.
As was the case with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Red State mutates on two or three separate occasions in a way that is always organic to the development of the story. This is not the hallmark of a director bored by his own story. The only negative of such modes is in the difficulty of definition, it is impossible to tag more precisely than a black comedy that falls between horror and thriller.
Taking cues from the essence of the exploitation renaissance, contrary to its compatriots red state is shocking through drama and not gore, splatter or the overt retro-fetishism (Robert Rodriguez). This drama is in the lengthy monologues by Michael Parks. He is more than a mere monster, he sings and plays jaunty tunes on the piano, he cares for all his children. Abin Cooper even breaks the intensity created by his own hand by asking one of his parishioners for a cup of tea while everyone is engaged by a fire fight. It is through juxtaposition that he becomes terrifying, making it a more unsettling and engrossing watch.
Cooper’s counter point is Joe Keenan (Goodman), who is the counter in more ways than perceived good and evil. He is also the counter in that Cooper is motivated by a faith informed by religion whereas Keenan is informed by the obligation of employment. It’s religion versus logic. Even though Goodman is an outstanding actor he plays a straight-laced role, the point of empathy, the plaudits belong to Parks in what is one of the defining performances of the year. Elsewhere, Mellissa Leo overacts and the three high school kids in Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Ronnie Connell add the emotional heft to make this most unbelievable of set pieces believable. Kerry Bishé also impresses with the most difficult role, the bridging point between faith and logic.
Red state is a self-contradictory affair. On the one hand, it’s a wordy script that is diverse enough to defy classification which will repulse those who aren’t put off by the intimacy the Cooper parish has with the Westboro Baptist church. On the other hand, this is the one film that will soothe the ill intentions of all those naysayers of Smith’s that state that he makes the same movie.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of Kevin Smith or not, this is his one film that should be watched by everyone (of age). Personally, Red State is a highlight of the 2011 calendar thanks to it being a difficult item to watch. Not because it is badly made or sickening, but because of how thoroughly entertaining and uncomfortable it is. Awkward bedfellows work and Smith has played them off each other brilliantly and you too will become ensnared by the films many directions.
Following the news that Kevin Smith is retiring from cinema, the only conclusion that can be made is that the world will be missing a voice that truly understands the form. He will be sorely missed.