At some point after Kevin Smith exited his tour bus with signs like "God Hates Mewes" and "I'm a Happy Jew;" after he paraded around the parking lot with protesters, cracked jokes on stage for ten minutes, and promoted his Smod Empire a few times, the lights went out and an actual film began to play. 'Red State' has been a long time coming for Smith. He wrote the script roughly five years ago; tried (and failed) to drum up support (and financing) from Harvey Weinstein, before finally managing to cough up enough money to make it himself, on his own terms with what turned out to be a very talented cast. In just four months Smith shot, edited and patched his film together with enough time to premiere it at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Yup. Four months.
Originally billed as a horror film about religious fanatics, 'Red State' isn't actually the type of horror film you expect. There's blood, violence and a lot of people getting shot in the head, but the horror comes from a different place; a place that's scared of how much hate can run through a person's soul; of how government can wipe out entire families by simply changing the definition of a situation. The problem with 'Red State,' though, is that all the politics, preaching and gotta-slide-them-in-there sex jokes sort of overwhelm the movie to the point that it feels scattered and a little unfocused. Not that there aren't moments that completely paralyze you, but unfortunately those moments become hard to hear and recognize over all the loud, obnoxious gunfire.
The film begins innocently enough when three high school boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) go hunting for sex after meeting a woman online who claims she'll sleep with all three of them. A drive way out in the middle of farm country eventually leads the boys to Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo), who -- you guessed it -- is not really going to sleep with them. Instead, she drugs them, ties them up and brings them to a church function that's probably not going to end with a simple, friendly confessional.
Nope, these folks are extremists -- violently freaky extremists -- who lock our boys in cages and let them watch as they pray, preach and ultimately kill off their prisoners one by one, starting with an unknown gay man tied to a cross. When one of the boys manages to get loose and try to escape, it sets off a series of confrontations that ends with a team of ATF agents swarming the extremists' compound, threatening to take the house by force and kill everyone in there under the notion that they're domestic terrorists and not just a group of religious fanatics who hate gay people. Obviously, this doesn't end well, but do situations like this ever end well?
When Smith traps us inside this house with these kids who are scared to death, fighting for every inch of their lives, the film is crazy captivating, and some of the best stuff I've ever seen from the writer-director. A scene with one of the boys frantically running through the house while several church members chase him up stairs and through rooms is tight and dizzyingly fast, as if it was shot to the beat of our racing hearts. This is when the film is at its best; when you're right next to these boys, experiencing every bit of hopeful terror and haunting frustration as they (and we) try to figure how the hell to get away from these freaks.
But things eventually slow down when the ATF agents show up and everyone opens fire on one another, turning what was an intense, claustrophobic horror thriller into one, long shootout (full of scenes featuring people shooting guns out of windows and not hitting anything), as well as a message movie about choices and labels. The main problem with the film is that it relies too heavily on Kevin Smith's greatest strength: his dialogue. 'Red State' soars when its characters aren't talking, but reacting.
Sure, Michael Parks turns in a terrific performance as the religious group's fearless leader (and singer ... and piano player), but the 20-minute faith-based monologue he throws down right after the kids are taken hostage just puts the film on pause instead of slowly raising the tension. I appreciate the fact that Smith is a fan of Parks, and really wants to let him do his thing here, but we want to fear the man, not be bored by him.
Even in its weakest moments, 'Red State' is saved by its tremendous cast. Kudos go to Smith for recognizing the talent in Melissa Leo (whose wicked witch-like performance sits right alongside Parks' as the best the film had to offer), as well as in Angarano, Gallner and Braun, three young actors we're sure to see more of in the future. John Goodman even tossed in a commanding performance as an ATF agent going through a conscience crisis.
Fact of the matter is, everyone is believable in this film, which helps when it changes directions and starts talking ... and talking ... and talking. With 'Red State,' Kevin Smith delivers a type of film we've never seen from him before; one that's raw and inventive in its technique, as well as overpowering with its performances. It loses direction and it talks too much -- and it's not an example of master genre storytelling -- but Smith gave it a good try, and it's not a film I regret seeing, nor will it be the last time I watch it.