PLOT: A trio of horny teenage boys looking to cop some ass off the internet get more than they bargained for when they're drugged and dragged to the Five Points Church, a neo-radical right wing compound headed by conservative evangelical minister Abin Cooper. From there, all HELL is unleashed!
REVIEW: Since Kevin Smith's RED STATE has largely been met with guttural criticism, almost acrimoniously, I really had no idea what to expect going in. I did know the film scored a middle ground review from our man Chris Bumbray, and that Smith's decision to self-distribute the film has been predominantly frowned upon. But these things didn't concern me. No, I was far more interested in seeing how, after the COP OUT debacle, Smith would bounce back with a). his own written material, and b). a diametrically opposed viewpoint of religion (or the capability of belief) posited in his 1999 satire DOGMA. Remember, in that film, one of the points raised seemed to be...it's not precisely what you believe in that's so important, but THAT you believe. In RED STATE, Smith flips the coin and shows - with great terror and discomfort - how potentially perilous people can take that very belief.
For the record, I enjoyed RED STATE quite a bit. Does that necessarily mean it's a great film? I'm sure it does not. I am sure the film is anchored by a truly great performance by Michael Parks, that much is irrefutable. In fact, the whole cast is solid (Melissa Leo especially). But more than that, I enjoyed the film for the way it made me feel. The honest physical reaction that had me bit queasy at times trumps any critical acumen I may have as a cinephile. Not for gore or gratuitous violence, mind you, but for the deeply disturbing vitriol Cooper's hateful rants are imbued with. You see, I'm not basing my opinion on the technical...after-all, Smith's films have never been superlative in that category. But it's not about that. Especially not for a $4 million indie horror flick. Smith's far more concerned with the vocal (audible) than visual...and to that end, I'm telling you how affected I felt by the woeful words spewed by the maniacal minister. And as much as I identify and understand the misgivings people have pointed out in the film (tonal inconsistencies, self-indulgence, etc.), I think the overall sensation outweighs the narrative flaws. I imagine one's own view and experience with religion will shape their opinion of the film, as it should. For me, the film did what you could ask any good horror flick to do...make me feel uneasy.
Now, I'll tread lightly on the plot, which by nature is rather lean. Let's just say the film, in one of its major cites of "criticism", is fractured into three segments. The first has the randy teens discussing getting laid and setting up an online fling. The second, and most effective, features Abin Cooper's odious sermon to about a dozen locals...the invective in which is as equally disturbing as any physical or graphically violent transgression that follows. The third segment, probably the most uneven, features an action-style shootout with an ATF squad and Cooper's cohorts. And while Smith all but capitulates the film as a satire in the comedic final moments of the film, I don't think it necessarily subtracts too much from the harrowing points he's making about the horrors of extremism. I mean, were the arguments raised in DOGMA ultimately sullied by the presence of a shit demon? If so, only a little. Same here with the film's final laughs. Only here, much needed relief may serve as the impetus behind the comedy. Again, nothing I had a problem with.
I also like the uncompromising nature of character treatment in the film. What's being criticized has a dearth of protagonists can conversely be argued as a strength of the unconventional. I realize in horror films, or any film for that matter, it's paramount for an audience to, if not fully root for, at least identify with someone in the cast. I get fully get that. But if the so called protagonists are unlikable to begin with...who the hell cares if they don't dominate screen time or fulfill a redemptive arc? Frankly, the lack of clear cut protagonists in RED STATE is not only a welcome bucking of expectation, it actually heightens the state of bewilderment the rest of the film leaves you in. Just as lost and misguided as Abin's deranged proselytizing becomes, so our we (the audience) without a "lead" to navigate us through the horrors. And that ultimately contributes to the sense of the unsettling. In terms of rote horror tropes, at a certain point there becomes nothing to believe in as a viewer. I doubt his was a premeditated move, but it's interesting to note that a film so predicated on the actions a belief can elicit, actually abandons all faith a viewer may have in a tidy resolution.
Overall, RED STATE'S unevenness doesn't compensate for the sickening feeling it incurred on me. Again, a lot of this is personal...and I'm admittedly basing my reaction by gut rather than head. But I think that's okay for this particular movie because it's a personal one for Smith as well. Yes, the film has dubious tonalities (is it satirical or austere?), and some sequences are a bit "airy" as Smith put it (he's since come out to say he'll re-cut the flick before showing it wide). But, and I'm probably alone on this, I think Cooper's 20 minute homily should be left completely alone. No cuts. It's far more disturbing and uncomfortable to have an audience sit, squirm and endure that bile piece of oration. Besides, Parks is the f*ckin' star of this film...no bones about it. To shave any second of that dude's presence would instantly weaken the picture. Not to play editor, but if anything shall be discarded, it's probably going to be some of the third reel sequences with Kevin Pollak and John Goodman. But even with their scenes intact, RED STATE is filled with fine performances with everyone involved (though I wish Stephen Root had more to chew on). So to those who dig on deeply disconcerting soliloquizing, or are just a fan of great leading turns, give RED STATE more than a mere flyover.