Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, John Goodman, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Alejandro, Patrick Fischler, David Marciano, Damian Young
R for strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity, and pervasive language
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Being scared by a horror film requires a great deal of effort and, these days, a handy gimmick. The scariest part of Kevin Smith’s new horror film Red State is that it was made in the first place.
The convoluted story begins centered on a crackpot lot of religious fanatics who picket funerals suggesting each death is God’s punishment for permitting homosexuals freedom. Does that sound like anyone you know? Of course it does, but lawsuit-leery Smith sidesteps the comparisons in the middle section of the film suggesting that Fred Phelps and his brood are sane by comparison. And perhaps they are, but the association added depth to a film that struggles to find it.
How exactly are they lacking in sanity? The evidence is provided as three horny teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) find themselves drugged and at the mercy of the bona fide nutjobs at this small, family church. They are horrified as they witness a homosexual, lured there under similar pretenses being prepared for slaughter in an effort to rid the world of an evil taint that this congregation believes is their sworn duty to perform. And through this first act of the film, I was firmly in the film’s corner, even when Smith spent roughly ten minutes allowing patriarch and preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) to orate on the vile wickedness that brought them there today. I forgave it because it gave us a keen understanding of how justified a lot of religious types can sound when preaching the word of the Lord; however, I didn’t realize that this most slack I was willing to give Smith after the rest of the film played out.
But that’s precisely where the film derails. Like the cannibal family in The Hills Have Eyes, this is a terrifying group of individuals whose disregard for human life knows no bound and being caught in their web of deceit and villainy is a satisfying direction for a film to progress. Who will survive and who will die? Will these depraved individuals have justic meted out on them?
Yet, it’s into the second act that the film begins to degrade quickly. Up to this point, Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), head of the regional ATF office, is seen periodically on the phone to superiors attempting to find a way to take down the potential threat of Cooper and his family who they suspect of stockpiling guns. At this point in the film, while Keenan is attempting to assess the veracity of claims against Cooper, the audience is already familiar with the trove of weapons secreted away in the church basement.
Now on site attempting to serve a warrant to search the premises, Keenan and his crew are prepared for, and indeed expect, a violent fight. His orders are clear and the wholesale slaughter, even of innocent children, is the order of the day. Keenan observes the orders even if he doesn’t respect them, nor should he. And this is where the film shifts from cult-driven horror film to pseudo-political pandering. Cooper’s lunacy becomes a launching point for a pro-freedom anti-government screed that feels like it was written for a completely separate film. The only horror from this point forward is realizing that Smith has no intention of returning to the somewhat riveting opening.
Goodman does his best with the material, creating a likeable and respectable foil working for and against the U.S. governmetn. Parks delivers his lines like the fire and brimstone preacher we expect and creates a downright ugly character, all the more suitable to the film that started, but never finished. In a small, but pivotal role as an angry, bitter zealot within the church, Melissa Leo has more fiery passion than her father and is probably the best used actor aside from Parks. The rest of the cast is perfunctory and almost forgettable, which includes the three teens whose fates would have made far more interesting narrative threads.
Smith has been struggling for the last few years to find relevance, having lost much of the promise he evinced early in his career. The fact that the latter two-thirds of the film meander between straddled fence posts doesn’t make for riveting entertainment. And refusing to choose sides may be a courageous, pro-first amendment position, but in the horror genre it’s like cutting off your nose to spite your own face. Horror is about taking sides and it’s usually in favor of the key protagonists, who ultimately end up with the short shrift. What is the point of Angarano’s Travis having a conversation with his parents when the outcome of his fight for life is a footnote in the film.
If you’re wanting a filmmaker to redefine a genre, Smith wouldn’t be your first choice. And nothing in Red State shows any potential to do such. It’s a melange of horror-lite elements stretched to credibility by politically shallow observations about religious intolerance, religious freedom, government culpability and government incompetence.
November 10, 2011