Reviewed from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival
Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper
Melissa Leo as Sarah Cooper
Nicholas Braun as Billy Ray
Ralph Garman as Caleb
Kerry BishÃ© as Cheyenne
Kevin Alejandro as Tactical Agent Harry
James Parks as Mordechai Cooper
Betty Aberlin as Abigail
Deborah Aquila as Teacher
Gary Sievers as Luke / Believer
John Lacy as Bruce
Shawn Driscoll as Isiah
Molly Livingston as Fiona May
Directed by Kevin Smith
To say there are few movies that have as much buzz going into Sundance as Kevin Smith’s first foray into horror with Red State would be an understatement because there are NO movies that have been discussed and debated as much without anyone having seen it. There’s also all the controversy surrounding the unconventional way the outspoken filmmaker has chosen to market and sell the movie that has created a “prove it” attitude in the mind of movie writers, something that accounted for the dozens of them standing in line early one morning to get tickets. All these elements added up to a premiere with a huge demand for tickets as well as becoming one of the festival’s biggest events. But did the actual movie live up to all that hype and expectations? Read on.
On the surface, the plot is about three horny teens in a remote area of the country who answer an online ad from a woman soliciting sex. Once they arrive, they’re drugged and they wake up in a church lined up as sacrificial lambs for evangelical preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the leader of the Five Points Church who wants to rid the world of homosexuals. One would think that this sort of premise would be prime fodder for the type of gory horror Eli Roth has done so well (depending on who you ask) but as soon as we arrive at the church and are subjected to a ridiculously long sermon by Parkâs character as a preamble to killing a homosexual they’ve saran-wrapped to a cross, the wind is sucked out of the movieâs sails pretty damn quick.
Itâs cool that Smith decided to get away from normal horror conventions, which would have had each of the three kids tortured and killed in gruesome ways as one of them tries to survive and escape, but itâs pretty clear the three kids in jeopardy arenât particularly important to the story. None of them are given too much personality even by horror movie standards so no tears will be shed when they’re offed so quickly without a second glance back.
Halfway through the movie, John Goodman shows up as an ATF agent called to the Five Points Church to investigate shots fired and a Waco-like scenario is created as the film turns into a shootout with every man and woman in the church grabbing a weapon from their impressive armory and fighting to defend their turf. The problem is that when one goes into a “horror” movie, they expect something thatâs scary or suspenseful and while the thought of people out there in the world who think just like Cooper and his flock is pretty terrifying, the subject matter could have been handled in a way that didnât try to sell the movie as if it was “horror.” The movie doesnât even look that great, possibly because Smith had less money than most of his other films, but also because he tries to use overused camera techniques like strapping cameras to his actors while theyâre trying to escape which just distracts from sense of reality.
If nothing else, “Red State” is a fine showcase for the talents of Michael Parks to give a over-the-top performance as the preacher who decides to be more proactive in doing “Godâs work,” but Cooper is a character who starts to grate on the nerves about halfway through that long sermon. Other than Parks, the film does have a number of strong dramatic moments, most of them involving Goodman, Melissa Leo as the preacher’s wife or Kerry BishÃ© as the preacherâs daughter who just wants to spare the kids in the church when the gunfire begins. They do help add to the tension, but at a certain point, you start caring for the survival of the homophobic members of the church and surely, that couldnât have been Smithâs intentions.
Smith ends the shootout in a bizarre way before cutting to an epilogue with Goodman explaining to his superiors what happened and learning the truth about how little our government cares for religious zealots, a long expository conversation which is where we finally get to see some of Kevinâs clever writing, but it just feels too late by the point.
And thatâs the kicker. For better or worse, “Red State” just doesn’t have enough of the elements we expect from a Kevin Smith movie, and instead, it feels like one of Smith’s Twitter rants fleshed out into film with equal portions of bile sprayed at both church and state. The results aren’t great, they’re also not terrible, but youâd be good to know what youâre getting when you go in. You have to give Smith credit for doing something completely different and unexpected, but those who like his previous work might be disappointed in how little of the warmer side of his personality is present, and horror fans will feel especially ripped off with how little the film resembles anything that may be deemed conventional horror.