A word to the director of the new religious horror-thriller Red State: who are you and what have you done with Kevin Smith? With the exception of some of the usual “Smith-isms” creeping into the dialogue (he can’t seem to help himself), this is entirely new territory for the Clerks director. And his newbie status in that territory is apparent throughout, with this being somewhat sloppier packaged than you might hope for. But when it works it really works, blending together a unique mix which isn’t at all predictable.
Three high school guys (played by Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) decide to answer an online sex ad from a mysterious woman. Once they drive out into the middle of nowhere to meet her they soon to discover she is not who she says she is and certainly isn’t after what she said she was. The trio are drugged and when they wake up they find themselves held hostage in a church of gun-toting religious fanatics, headed by the controlling Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).
Now if that plot sounds at all familiar it’s because it’s (obviously) inspired by the real life Westboro Baptist Church, famously documented by Louis Theroux as “The Most Hated Family in America.” Smith spends a good chunk of time towards the beginning introducing us to this fictionalized version of that organization, here called the Five Points church, through Abin giving a welcoming speech to the other members while the new hostages are kept in cages or tied up in the basement. The newly arrived hostages get a taste of how serious the situation is when Abin gives the go-ahead for another hostage tied up to a cross to be murdered right in front of everyone. It’s here where what Smith’s doing comes across as a bit heavy-handed and labored, laying everything on way too thickly for too long. Yes, Kevin, we get it, these people are religious nut-jobs, there’s no need to go on and on about it…
It’s only once the situation escalates as the police find out about the church’s present activities within their fortress-like compound and send in the SWAT-like team (lead by the ever-brilliant John Goodman) that things get much more enjoyable. Red State is at its best when the gloves are off and things are going out of control left right and centre, and works less so when Smith resorts back to attacking religion. Any religious people who happen to watch this will definitely feel Smith is being unfairly one-sided. Sure, this is meant to be entertainment more than anything else but you can’t help feel that Smith is plain having a go at religion in general, whether that was his clear intention or not that’s how it sometimes comes across. He caused protests with his 1999religious comedy Dogma and its taken him this long to fuel the fire once more, this time in an altogether more serious way.
Smith has assembled himself quite a cast for his first foray beyond comedy (although this is, at times, a comedy of the darkest order). You’ll see faces pop up you’ll know from all over the place – out with the obvious actors like John Goodman, Kevin Pollak and Oscar-winning Melissa Leo (The Fighter), there are the likes of Stephen Root, Anna Gunn and the three lead teenagers, Angarano, Gallner and Braun. But it’s Michael Parks as the domineering Pastor Cooper who truly gets the chance to shine, providing simultaneously the most hateful and believable character of everyone.
There comes a point near the end of the film which hints at an extremely bold direction that the film might go down. If Smith had chosen to go that way with it this might have added up to something more substantial. But alas he seems to be scared of his own ideas and opts for a safer and thus disappointing ending which wraps things up too neatly. Ultimately Red State is an interesting experiment for Smith, peppered with odd and daring moments, but nonetheless a flawed one.