Much of the hype surrounding Red State has been based very simply (and understandably) on the “Hey, Kevin Smith made a horror movie” condition. This is he of the 37 dick jokes, after all, and ever since the flick was announced many fans have viewed it as a kind of curiosity, almost a cinematic stunt. At the very least, Red State proves Kevin Smith was sincere in his effort to take his filmmaking in a completely different direction. But it goes further. This is Kevin Smith at the height of his filmmaking energy, earnestly crafting something visceral and gripping. It’s not just good for a Kevin Smith horror picture. It’s good for any horror picture.
The concept is simple: take the idea of a church-centered hate group like the Westboro Baptist Church (the “God Hates Fags” crowd) and ratchet their principles up another level. Red State centers on Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a minister preaching to no one but his family from a remote rural compound, preaching that almost no one will get into heaven, preaching that sinners must be put to death. They practice what they preach, and this is where the horror begins.
Red State begins like many horror films, with a band of teenagers looking to score. Instead they find themselves lured into a trailer by one of Cooper’s daughters (Melissa Leo) and led to slaughter in his chapel. Meanwhile, ATF Agent Keenan (John Goodman) who’s been working on an illegal weapons case against the Cooper clan for some time, is given the word that today’s the day he has to take the Cooper compound. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel ready. But the showdown begins.
This is where Red State switches from a torturous horror film to a standoff that very nearly becomes an action movie. Through every minute of this film it’s clear that Smith is pushing himself. He wants to go further with everything, from camerawork to scripting to violence to black humor. It doesn’t always hit the mark dead center, but when Red State is going full throttle, you won’t be able to look away.
The flick is surprisingly brief, but Smith manages to pack in a load of social commentary without ever seeming to cram it down anyone’s throat. The Cooper clan work just as well as serial murdering crazies as they do religious fanatics that represent a dangerous terrorist element. Agent Keenan could be the morally tortured would-be hero, or he could just be the guy who has to put the bad man down. It feels refreshingly open, and it’s the mark of well-considered storytelling.
But even amid Smith’s impressive, ambitious and invigorating direction, the star of the show is Michael Parks. His Abin Cooper is hypnotic, frightening, compelling and just plain fun to watch. The rest of the cast – made up of a slew of very talented actors – is elevated by the work he does, and the flick doesn’t work without him.
The end result of Red State is a film that reaffirms Smith’s place as one of our most daring independent filmmakers, a title he almost let slip away. It may not go down as the best film he’s done, but it will go down as the bravest.