I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
Despite the claims of writer/director Kevin Smith, Red State is barely a horror film. To call it a film at all is actually something of a stretch, but we’ll get to that later. There are aspects in the first act of the film that are horrific and shot like an entry in the torture porn genre that is clever enough to tap into some very dark religious extremism. These are easily the best moments in the movie and the only reason I’m bothering to include it as part of my 31 Days of Horror.
The messy story actually begins with a fairly tight setup—especially for a Kevin Smith-penned film. Travis (Michael Angarano, just the first of many fairly talented people who really shouldn’t be in this production), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) are high school friends in a small town in the unnamed titular state. Jarod has been chatting with a local woman on a web site designed to connect people for one night stands. She has agreed to have sex with the three friends. They just need to travel to the next town over to meet her. Being young, horny, and somewhat stupid, they immediately brush aside how shady this idea sounds. Travis borrows his parent’s’ car and the three are off.
Of course, the town where this mystery woman lives is the home to a small church that has been making headlines for picketing high-profile funerals by claiming the deceased are being punished for the country’s tolerance of gay people. On the way to the woman’s home, the boys accidentally sideswipe a car parked on the side of the road. Since they have been drinking, they flee the scene. It turns out the car was occupied by the local sheriff (Stephen Root) who was having sex with someone other than his wife. The sheriff gets a look at the car as it drives away, but because of his current circumstances, he fails to give chase.
The boys continue on to their rendezvous and meet Sara (Melissa Leo), a middle-aged woman who encourages them to drink beers as soon as they enter her trailer home. Then things go bad in a hurry. Their beers drugged, the boys pass out. The next thing Jarod knows, he’s in a shopping cart, under a cover, being pushed along to an unknown destination. Travis and Billy-Ray are tied tightly with rolls of plastic wrap in a crawlspace, but they’re obviously in the same place as Jarod because they all can hear the same voice.
That voice belongs to Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the head of the extremist church. In an extended scene that is hampered by the overacted reactions of his congregation (Leo is particularly guilty of going way over the top), Abin lays out the philosophy of the church in an expositional monologue disguised as a sermon. His dialogue is way too on the nose, but Parks sells the hell out of the scene with a hammy performance that doesn’t seem like overkill because Cooper should be a ham. He’s a country preacher with a self-righteous streak a mile wide. He pushes a perversion of Christianity that is regressive, but is modern enough to know how to use modern technology and the media to further his own terrible agenda. Parks plays these contradictions with as much charisma as possible, as he should.
Things go from bad to worse as Cooper has his church members murder another hostage in front of Jarod, with plans to kill him next. But at that moment, Travis and Billy-Ray manage to escape the crawlspace, leading the congregation on a hunt through the church. Billy-Ray discovers the church’s large stash of guns and gets into a gunfight with his kidnappers just as the sheriff’s deputy (Matt Jones) arrives at the church to investigate the hit-and-run accident with the sheriff. Before you know it, the ATF is called in as it becomes obvious that a hostage situation has developed.
Believe it or not, all this happens in the first act, and while some points feel a tad rushed, I was intrigued by the setup. Then the rest of the movie happened.
Keenan (John Goodman), the head of the ATF team sent to investigate, seems like a grounded guy, but any characterization he might be given is lost as Smith tries to pump as many possible ideas into the film as he can fit into its sub-ninety minutes running time.
And that’s the main problem with Red State. It’s not a film. It’s merely a collection of half-formed ideas that Smith has gathered together under the guise of a horror/hostage thriller. In reality, it’s a mess that is only partially redeemed by some good acting from Parks and Goodman.
Usually I am lenient toward films that don’t come together but show ambition. But I don’t think you can call Smith’s efforts here ambitious. It feels more like every scene was an effort to hold the director’s short attention span as the film veers wildly in tone and structure from scene to scene—sometimes within the same scene. There is no sense of continuity to anything in the film and that makes it feel more like a desperate attempt to grab attention through shock value and snarky dialogue exchanges intended as caustic satire.
But Smith’s idea of satire is misguided. Not only does he fail to properly expose the absurdity behind a small church of homophobic jerks managing to gain national attention by manipulating the media, he actually ends up attacking aggressive government over-reaction (think the 1993 tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX). This is idiotic since Cooper and his followers are immediately shown to be murderers, are holding hostages, and only have fire opened on them after an agent is killed by Cooper. I hold a fairly healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to the necessity of force used by some government agencies—and Smith takes full advantage of the ATF’s less than stellar reputation when it comes to the kinds of stand-offs dramatized here—but with everything that is shown up until the stand-off begins, Keenan and his team act responsibly. It’s not until a ridiculous plot twist that Smith reveals an oddly paranoid agenda that seems to partially justify Cooper’s lunatic ravings. By the time the film ends with a lengthy dialogue scene that is supposed to be dark comedy at its most pitch-black—but is really just an excuse for some textbook set-up and punch line jokes—I was ready for the merciful running of the end credits.
Red State is the worst kind of mess—a boring one. Do yourself a favor, don’t get sucked in by the good cast, supposed controversy, or claims to being a horror film or satire. It’s merely Smith’s cry for attention as he tries and fails to show how much smarter he is than his characters and the audience. It’s not offensive, but it is insulting.
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