Three horny young high-schoolers find a local woman through a website who appears willing to take them all on at the same time. Ignoring their own qualms, they set out one night only to wind up drugged, abducted and taken to preacher Abin Cooper’s notorious fundamentalist church community, who are, it emerges, bent on ridding the world of homosexuals and perverts, one at a time. But a traffic accident earlier in the evening means that first the cops, and then the FBI get involved. Between the well-armed apocalyptic god-botherers and the trigger-happy Feds, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will survive…
Part horror movie, siege drama and political screed, Kevin Smith’s Red State is an unsubtle broadside blow delivered at the likes of Kansas’s Westboro Baptist Church, taking in federal incompetence and post-9/11 national security along the way. It benefits from great performances. John Goodman is great as a conflicted G-man trying to do the right thing as it all goes to hell. Melissa Leo convinces alarmingly as a mother and genuine believer in the End Times desperate to go to her reward and happy to take her children with her. And Michael Parks is fantastic as Abin Cooper, genuinely charismatic, and delivering his homespun message in an entrancing sing-song burr that almost hides the poisonous garbage he’s spouting.
Smith always seemed to be a filmmaker who missed the ‘show, don’t tell’ module of the screenwriting course. He could put together foul-mouthed dialogue like no one else, but wanted it to do all the work, and never seemed that interested in making cinema. Red State has a visual style, abandoning the usual meat and potatoes camera set-ups for something more fluid, hand-held and intimate. There is, especially in the first hour, a palpable sense of threat and unease unknown in the rest of his work. For once the screen isn’t full of surrogate Smiths riffing on pop culture, but living, breathing people with wider concerns. He can’t maintain it, of course: the last reel is pure info dump delivered by people who wouldn’t be talking like this; the Federal superiors seem to be a dope smoker’s idea of what such people would be like. There are jagged tonal shifts and dramatic dead ends. It’s messy, but it’s thrilling, creepy and continually does things you don’t expect. Smith claims that he’s retiring as a director, which, on this evidence, is a pity. For the first time in years I’m interested in what he’s going to do next.