I’ve been saying for years I wanted to see Kevin Smith try something different. With Red State, the writer/director attempts to create a horror film based loosely on the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s a departure of sorts (Smith still finds a way to slide in his usual assortment of dick jokes), and even if its not entirely successful, Red State does have its moments.
The film centers around the fictional Five Points Church led by the charismatic Reverend Abin Cooper (based on Fred Phelps and played by Michael Parks). No longer content to just protest at funerals of homosexuals, Cooper and his brethren have begun entrapping and executing those who they see as a blight on their community.
In true teen sex comedy fasion Red State begins with the lustful dreams of three teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun), but, after more than a few twists and turns, ends with a shoot-out between the ATF and the Five Points Church.
The story is a bit muddled, inconsistent, and in need of some serious rewrites and editing. Even with these obvious flaws there is some definite filmmaking going on here. Smith, for arguably the first time ever in his twenty years in the business, steps outside his comfort zone. The look of the film (shot by cinematographer David Klein) is far more dynamic than anything the director has done. Except for its opening and ending sequences, Red State neither looks nor feels like a Kevin Smith film.
The performances are strong across the board including Parks, Kerry Bishé and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo as the major figures in the Cooper clan. The film doesn’t really begin in earnest until Parks takes center stage delivering a sermon to his flock. John Goodman has some nice moments as well as the ATF agent-in-charge in the field to take down the church.
The film has a grittiness and natural look which helps sell the tale as much as the strong performances. Red State also provides some truly disturbing moments including the Church preparation and sacrifice of those they view as the enemies of God.
There’s a good story at the heart of Red State, and strong performances all around. It’s also true that the film feels like Smith may have stepped a little too far out of his comfort zone into a world he isn’t familiar with. The internal ATF discussions feel forced (and more than a little boneheaded given the events in Waco) but the film does provide some unseen twists that will keep audiences on their toes.
It’s not his best film nor, despite his recent comments, his most grown-up movie, but it’s far from his worst. Red State is a mixed success which (hopefully) marks the broadening of Smith not only as a writer and director but filmmaker as well.