PLOT: Three teens (Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Nicolas Braun) looking for sex, are lured to a rendezvous with a mysterious woman (Melissa Leo). The boys are drugged, and brought to the compound of Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who runs an ultra-conservative, cult-like Christian fundamentalist sect called “The Five Points Church” which aims to rid the world of homosexuals.
REVIEW: At Sundance 2011, no other film has been as controversial as RED STATE, most of it due not to the film`s content, but to the new enfant terrible persona that`s seemingly been adopted by the previously affable director, Kevin Smith. While most films at Sundance tend to play 4-5 times, the decision was made to limit the screenings to two, making tickets to either screening extremely difficult to come by. Smith also made the decision not to screen the film for the press, by a limited number of tickets were made available through the Sundance Press Office, and lucky me, I got my hands on one.
I went into RED STATE with a conflicting set of expectations. On the one hand, I've been a Kevin Smith fan since high school, and RED STATE promised a much needed step into a new direction after the atrocious COP OUT. On the other, why wasn't Smith screening RED STATE for the press? If he's proud of the film, why wouldn't he want to show it? Was there something wrong with it?
Plenty it turns out...
Now, it must be said that RED STATE is a far superior film to COP OUT, with this obviously being a passion project for Smith. Anytime a writer/director puts as much of himself into a project as Smith obviously did here, the film will always be worth watching. Indeed, RED STATE is worth seeing, but it's also one of the most frustrating films I've seen in ages. Before reading on, I must warm you, I'm going to dip into spoilers here, as I really can discuss the film without giving away a bit of what happens in the second half. I'll try to keep the spoilers light, but beware. If you want to go in entirely fresh, skip the rest of the review.
RED STATE starts off fairly well, with Smith introducing us to a couple of stereotypical, horny, horror movie teens that are generic, but fun. The chemistry between the three teens was great and they made for a believable trio of pals. The only problem here is that the premise, being that the three kids would be so desperate for sex that they'd drive out to some remote trailer for a rendezvous with an anonymous woman they meet on the net, is a bit hard to swallow. Such things have happened I suppose, but only one of the kids seems particularly thick (Nicolas Braun, who we know is dumb because he wears a mullet).
The problems really kick in one we meet the congregation of the Five Points Church, which is a thinly disguised take off on the Westboro Baptist Church (who protested the Park City premiere). The vibe of Pastor Cooper's flock is indeed creepy, and Parks is terrific in the role, but at this point the film really goes off the rails. Cooper's sermon, during which he slaughters a local gay teen, runs something like twenty minutes, with no cutaways, except to the abducted teens. This sequence, which is obviously supposed to be the frightening centerpiece, instead comes off as incredibly self indulgent, and should have been trimmed by a half.
I suppose Smith didn't want to interfere with Parks' performance, which I'll admit is excellent, but really, this whole sequence is too much and the film never recovers. At this point, we cut to John Goodman's ATF agent, who's been investigating the cult and is sent into the church's compound after a tip from a closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) who wants to get rid of the cult before they reveal his secret life. Here, the film totally shifts gears, with it becoming a take-off on Waco, although the tension is ratcheted up to the point were it becomes ludicrous.
Eventually, the film breaks into a massive firefight between the Five Points congregation and the ATF, and for me this was the one part of the film that really worked. The gunfight is easily the most cinematic scene Smith's ever filmed and the sound work here is excellent. Goodman`s also very believable as the conflicted agent, although I didn`t buy the cold-bloodedness of some of the agents he works with, who should have been more conflicted about some of the things they`re force to do. Still, at this point I felt that the film was getting back on track. But then we get yet another twist, leading to a shockingly poor denouement that really bothered me, but of course, one that I won't reveal here.
One thing that needs to be made clear is that RED STATE is NOT a horror film. Sure, there are some horrific things in it, but nothing particularly genre-worthy. If I can to classify this as anything, I'd say it's a bit of a satire, but the tone really varies. As some points it's a comedy, but at others it's dead serious, and this inconsistent tone keeps it from being either a razor sharp satire, or a thought-provoking drama. It aspires to be both, but ends up as neither.
I can't completely dismiss Smith's efforts with RED STATE, as he's obviously trying to stretch himself, but frankly, I don't feel he went far enough. Anytime the film starts to get interesting, Smith backtracks, making it come off as a bit of a half-assed effort. In the Q & A following the film, Smith revealed that a far different ending for the film was intended and if he had gone down that road, this might have really been something. As it stands, RED STATE is a truly mediocre film with flashes of inspiration that make it all the more frustrating to watch.