Not widely seen upon its release in 2011, Kevin Smith’s “Red State” deserves to be revisited before the New Jersey director heads to horror again with “Tusk” in 2014. His first foray into full-on action/horror is an examination of the extreme lengths human beings will go to when they believe they are righteous. This is a very mature film from the guy who gave us “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” which was more intelligent than its title suggests. People who tend to sneer at Smith’s work should check out “Red State” and will be pleasantly surprised.
No time is wasted to set the scene. Somewhere in the southern United States, Travis (Michael Angarano) is being driven to school by his mother (Anna Gunn from “Breaking Bad”). On the way they see Christian extremists with hateful signs picketing the funeral of a murdered gay teenager. Their leader is preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). At Travis’ school his teacher tells the whole class this man is the worst of the worst and that even Neo-Nazis stay away from Cooper, but the first amendment allows Cooper to say what he wants in public no matter how vile.
After class Travis and his friends Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) start planning their evening. Jared has met a woman online who says she will sex with the three of them, and the horny teens do not hesitate to go hook up with her at her trailer after dark. So far this sounds like another Kevin Smith sex comedy, but things quickly take a dark turn. The woman, Sarah (Melissa Leo), tells the boys she won’t have sex with them unless they have a drink first. The beers are drugged and when they wake up they are held prisoner in Abin Cooper’s church. Sarah is actually Cooper’s wife and it turns out his congregation so extreme in their beliefs they are willing to kill sinners, and in their holy book having an orgy is a sin they cannot overlook. As Jared accurately screams, this isn’t funny anymore.
The authorities intervene after deputy Pete (Matt L. Jones, another “Breaking Bad” veteran) finds the boy’s car on the church grounds and is shot by the congregation. The local sheriff (Stephen Roots) calls the ATF, who in turn send in world-weary agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) to intervene. Keenan is a very smart man who is reluctant to take action, saying the agency does not have a good track record with these kinds of situations. As a matter of fact, once the ATF shows up at Cooper’s doors armed to the teeth a violent gunfight erupts after local law enforcement shoots the wrong man.
There is a lot going on here. Abin Cooper is clearly a representation of preacher Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church who indeed picket the funerals of gay teens, soldiers, and anyone they feel go against their religious views. Phelps is even mentioned by Keenan when he is explaining the difference between him and Cooper to his superior over the phone, saying Cooper is a doer whereas Phelps is just sewer.
But Smith is not content with just depicting religious zealots as Bible thumping homophobes. The United States government also has its share of blame in the gunfight at the church. In their infinite wisdom and with the power of the Patriot Act, they rebrand Cooper’s followers as terrorists because they have killed Americans for religious beliefs. Consequently, they give agent Keenan the green light to kill everyone, mostly because they think Cooper is an A-hole.
For his first attempt at horror, Smith does a very good job of ratcheting up the tension, especially when we meet Cooper during one of his sermons. The demented preacher gives a long monologue about the evils of society and how homosexuals are to blame, only to slowly reveal he thinks the commandment “thou shall not kill” is pretty negotiable. Since the monologue is performed by Michael Parks, an actor who could read the phone book and still come off as charismatic, you understand how this madman can have any followers.
Dialogue has always been Smith’s forte and he also has some juicy lines for Goodman and his partner Agent Brooks (Kevin Pollak) who briefly bring back some humor before the big gun fight. “How much do you think a cross like that costs?” Brooks asks as he looks at Cooper’s front yard. Keenan’s answer: “You mean in dollars or common sense?” Bravo.
“Red State” will thrill you at times, it will make you laugh at the dialogue, and then the ending will make you laugh even harder in sheer disbelief at the ridiculousness of life and human nature. Smith clearly believes people like Fred Phelps are one sandwich short of a picnic, but he is smart enough to say there is plenty of crazy to go around.
(“Red State” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)