Red State is a departure for Kevin Smith who, up until now, was mostly know for his comedies and an occasional dramady. It’s marketed as a horror in the vein of all those backwood movies like Hostel where a couple of kids end up in the clutches of some bad people in a remote area. Personally I wouldn’t describe it as that, because to inject the concept with something new Kevin Smith changes everything when he introduces the ATF in the second half of the movie and it goes from a horror to a siege movie.
The protagonists are three young lads who hook up with a mature woman who has posted a sex ad. Apparently this is the only way these kids will get laid and one might wonder why they don’t just hook up with a prostitute. It’s not like the 30 minute drive is free. Well the woman turns out to be a member of a fanatical religious group modeled after the Westboro Baptist church. You probably know them from the picketing funerals of gay people and veterans or tweeting how Steve Jobs is rotting in Hell from an iPhone. The only difference here between the Westboro church and the Five Point Star church, as it’s called, is that they have taken gone from just picketing funerals to picking of people they consider sinners. The three boys are their latest victims.
The first half of the movie follows these boys, as they venture off into the dark back woods at night, get drugged, wake up imprisoned in the church and witness a homosexual being executed by the church members after a long sermon by pastor Abin Cooper, played with a certain delight by Michael Parks. The movie follows the pattern of similar movies with the moments of distress at first and trying to escape later. Smith then uses a cliche moment where a police officer is outside of the church while the boys are inside to give it an unexpected, if you haven’t seen the trailer, twist and turn it into a siege movie where the ATF brings in the big guns and try to take over the church.
This twist makes this movie feel really fresh, especially considering all the flicks we endured the last few years who had a similar set up. Smith then uses a couple of other tricks to keep us on our toes and toys with us by not only making simply every character expendable but also incorporating a deus ex machina which really came out of nowhere. I’m guessing it will be long debated if this is a cop out (pun intended) or a brilliant choice. The ending even happens off screen and is explained by one of the characters. I thought it was pretty funny ,though it did came out of nowhere a bit. I also tried to imagine how it would be like if the church members were right. That would have also been the twist of the century, but my guess is that wouldn’t fit in the budget at all.
The movie is shot for four million dollars. It shows a bit as there are no expensive locations or sets used. Most of the actors are unknowns, and other than John Goodman no real big names have a large role in the movie. Character actors like Kevin Pollak and Stephen Root have nothing but small supporting roles or glorified cameos. Viewers of Breaking Bad should recognize Skyler and Badger amongst the cast.
While made on a small budget the movie looks good. In terms of cinematography there are some nice choices done here like a really tense claustrophobic chase through the church. I’m not a fan of body cams and they do that trick multiple times here but never to a point where it got annoying. For a director who’s style has been called flat, Smith really puts something on screen here that breathes atmosphere. It should because this movie doesn’t have his trademark dialogue to exist on. Only the pastor is allowed to spit long lines filled with religious slur, and as bullshit as it may be, Michael parks kept me to my seat every damn second he was spouting it.
What imperfects the movie is that characters are undeveloped. We don’t really get to know the three teens, the closet-homosexual character of Root disappears midway through, and the people in the church are the same mindless religious fanatics you see in every movie. All but one is never developed and even this character we only get to know one extra thing about; that she cares for the kids.
The ending, as I mentioned, will stir up debates. I found it cool on one hand, but on the other it did feel like the very definition of the deus ex machina. But the entire movie grabbed me, the switch in the middle made this feel like something entirely unexpected. Red State was a treat to watch.