"People do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe."
Kevin Smith is such an enigma to me. He started his career with a low-budget comedy, essentially remade the same film next with a substantially bigger budget, scaled back and did a low budget romantic comedy, scaled back up and made a big budget religious epic, and so forth, and so on. He bounces back and forth between budgets and subject matter, but the common thread to all of his films is that everyone talks a lot. A whole lot. His films are some of the most verbose films, second only to Tarantino probably.
It's fitting, then, that he should turn fix his eye on the extremist evangelical movement in this country for his latest film, as they are the most verbose group of individuals when given free reign. Red State was billed as his attack on Fred Phelps and his infamous Westboro Baptist Church. And while Phelps and his hate-mongers aren't far from your mind when you watch the film (they're even name checked about halfway through), Smith decided to distinguish his evangelical zealots by having them be gun nuts to boot.
Red State opens with three teenage boys responding to an ad on a website from a woman offering to have sex with all three of them. When they arrive at her trailer in the middle of nowhere, in a non-descript, presumably "red" state, they are instead drugged and taken to the Five Points Church, led by pastor Abin (we get it Smith, you're a comic book fan) Cooper (Michael Parks) where they will presumably be executed for their aberrant deviant behavior. All hell breaks loose though when a local deputy out looking for the missing boys is killed by a church member, and the local sheriff calls ATF, bringing the big guns to town, and setting up a Branch Davidian-style showdown.
That's pretty much the plot in a nutshell, and to say anymore would ruin the twists and turns Smith built into this story. I recommend this film for two reasons. First and foremost, it's always nice to watch a director working outside of their comfort zone, which Smith is very clearly doing here, and succeed or fail, it's always worth your time to see what they have in store. Secondly, Michael Parks' performance is revelatory. He's one of those character actors that's lived on the fringes for decades, playing memorable bit roles in From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bill volumes (admirably in two different roles) & The Assassination of Jesse James.
Here he's given a chance to shine, and does he ever. I hate to say that his character isn't particularly well-written, at least not in the way that a great role often is, but he takes what Smith gave him and he ran with it, and he makes it work better than it honestly has any right to.
There are some other bright spots in the cast. John Goodman is always great, and here, playing the lead man on the ATF team, he proves again just how solid he can be. Kevin Pollack is also great in a criminally small role, as is Stephen Root, and seeing Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad definitely brought a smile to my face. The biggest sore thumb in the entire endeavor however is Melissa Leo as Cooper's daughter. She won an Oscar last year for her incredibly nuanced performance in The Fighter, but here, she overplays every moment of every scene she's in, to the point of almost comical excess. She's always been brilliant when doing "less is more," but she's operatically absurd here.
Smith has never been known for being a visually dynamic director, and his efforts here are a mixed bag at best, but at least he's trying. I actually think that Clerks II is probably his best directed movie, and if he's guilty of anything here, it's probably trying to do too much. He lifts the low-angled close-up shot from Requiem for a Dream, but uses it only twice, making me question why he would use it at all. There's a lot of nice work with handheld, but he seems uncertain of how to resolve it with more classically staged crane shots and the like.
The script has some nice flourishes, but on the whole, it just felt like he was going after a bunch of low hanging fruit. Religious fanatics, a government that's drunk with power, agro-farmer college kids, etc. A much more interesting film for me anyway, would have been an extended sermon from Cooper, confining the action to the church, and maybe doing away with the high body count & action film tropes, but that's just me. But, like I said, at least he's stepping outside of his comfort zone and doing new things, and for that alone, it's worth your time. I would like to see someone really stick it to Fred Phelps and his ilk, but I doubt a filmmaker like Smith is the one to do it, and I especially doubt he'd go back to this well again so soon, but stranger things have happened.