Kevin Smith does something new, to him, with Red State, moving away from his dialogue and character driven comedies. He calls this film a horror, and for about 30 minutes it kinda is, but Smith's fast-paced direction and inability to create scares quickly ends that dream. I always admire when directors toy around with other genres and Smith is a director with talents that could work well with exploration. This film is a start; some good qualities, daringness always gets bonus points, and his direction in his first serious toned project works decently with plenty of violence with contained gore. If Smith continues to explore genres like he does with this film, I see him finally finding an idea that will show him, and us, talents that he doesn't even know he possesses.
Set somewhere in the deep South where religion is aggressive and accents are terrible. The film opens with teenager Travis (Michael Angarano) being made late for school because of a protest of a local teenager's funeral that is lead by the violently homophobic preacher, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Travis and his two friends, Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), get an invitation by a mysterious women to have sex. The women, who happens to be Sarah Cooper (an annoying role played by the usually wonderful Melissa Leo), drugs the boy's beers and when Jarod wakes up he is being held in a cage and is inside the Five Points Church which happens to be the hideout for Abin Cooper and his cult-like family of followers.
Abin then goes into a long sermon where he describes his hatred for homosexuals -- his family is constantly mouthing what he says before he says it, which is infuriating. Michael Parks is fantastic as the sadistic preacher who fights for his beliefs like a soldier fights for his country. The preachy moments of the film are like nails on a chalkboard, but Parks' performance is extreme and dedicated and deserves to be respected. The three teenagers are cliched and unmemorable; even Kerry Bishe's virginal performance as the good-hearted, corrupted through birth, Cheyenne Cooper is weak and we are left not caring about her fate. Many quick and abrupt deaths leave the religious extremists all alone to preach and lurch with their messed up views; that is, until John Goodman arrives as ATF Agent Keenan. His performance is strong and his morality struggles in dealing with the militarily armed Cooper family is well done.
This film moderately studies religious and political corruption. Like in all of Smith's films he has so many ideas jumbled together; he expresses his distain for religious extremists with a burning passion yet he doesn't have the guts to condemn them. Maybe that is a good thing, but for 90 minutes he uses the Cooper's to represent everything wrong with religious freaks, so ending the film with a sympathetic view of them is quite frustrating. Keenan's story of the two dogs which he uses as a representation of human nature is powerful, but the way he says that ideas can turn people into animals left me questioning the way Smith presented the Cooper's as vile human beings. A perfect example of Smith's constantly conflicting ideas.Ignoring the ideas and just watching Smith's style is a useful tactic, but a hard one to accomplish. Those who are able to do that may get more enjoyment out of its thriller-horror plotting, but it is hard to ignore ideas that are so desperate to be heard. The action is intense, and the violence isn't too trashy, although watching a never-ending shootout gets old fast.
Red State is worth a watch in order to see Smith throw away the style he has been at home with for 15 years and finally do something original after his atrocious buddy-cop film, Cop Out (2010). It is safe to say that Smith desperately needs a change of scenery to get his mind focused on his future. Imagining Smith in anything other than comedy is a task, but after this film I am anticipating another daring film in the future from him. Conventional is not a word that has even been able to describe his films, and this film doesn't even go by any traditional elements; briskly combining elements creating a thriller-horror hybrid. This film is often ugly and poorly put together, its over-the-top ideas are a headache. Through all its flaws Red State stays an explorative film by one of the most interesting directors working today.