By Drew Turney
Kevin Smith’s gone on record saying he set out not only to do a film that was different from his usual fare, but something closer to the output of the director all the other directors consider a hero, Quentin Tarantino.
In doing so he’s succeeded on many levels. The least obvious aspect is in the plot, an extremely well structured piece of storytelling that surprises you at every turn. Major characters (in fact, most of them) are dispatched with shocking brutality and suddenness, with no time to slowly bleed to death while mumbling some grand profundity.
The lead villain – Michael Parks as Abin Cooper – is given a 20 minute stretch to establish his cool, clinical evil, a move some critics haven’t liked but which I loved. The fact that it belongs so comfortably but so many people don’t like it says more about our very narrow expectations of structure and rhythm in a movie (dictated by a raft of stifling marketing strictures) than it does any flaw in Red State.
The story behind the making and distribution threatened to overshadow the film itself, but its biggest upside is that Smith had no studio executive telling him one of the boys had to survive to the end, bloodied and heroic, or that Cheyenne (Bishe) and Jarod (Gallner) have to kiss at some point. He wrote a plot as free-wheeling as he liked and directed it according to his instincts of what works and surprises you, not what’s cinematic.
Of course he’s done that with every other film right back to Clerks, but most of the time the freedom in his plots are like Jar Jar Binks to the Star Wars universe – cartoony, undisciplined and too in love with themselves. Red State is a very tightly wound story delivered with understated, Tarantinoesque panache, so it looks and moves nothing like a Kevin Smith film.
First, there’s the tightness in the story. For all Smith’s proselyitising against Hollywood’s rules Red State follows at least one to the letter – if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s out. There are no comic asides or subplots to pad out the usually weak ideas of his early films. Secondly, the acting is almost uniformly great – if you watch Mallrats again years after the fact (as I recently did), you can see how terrible and forced the performances are.
Jarod (Gallner), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Travis (Angorano) are three everyday horny teens who find a woman in a casual sex hookup service in their area, a town haunted by the spectre of a Phelpsian group of religious nutjobs who protest gay weddings. When they reach the out-of-the-way trailer where she lives they find the middle aged, tired-looking Sara (Leo, riding high after her Oscar win for The Fighter) who insist they all have some beers before getting to it.
But Sara is the snare of a trap. She’s a member of the ultra right wing Coopers, a family of fearsome fundamentalist Christians who not only protest the funerals of people they see as part of the moral degradation of America, they kidnap and ritually execute them. And after the drugs in the beer wear off, the boys wake up in cages deep in the Waco-style Cooper family compound.
Jarod is dragged into the chapel where Abin gives him chilling sermon before the children are ushered out of the chapel and the men come onto the stage to kill their latest victim, strapped to the giant crucifix by cling wrap.
Meanwhile, low level ATF agent Keenan (Goodman) is put on the case, sent to the Cooper compound to investigate allegations of their practices after the town sheriff (Root) and his deputy have already fallen victim in various ways.
The Coopers are ready – every man, woman and child armed to the teeth – and a blistering gun battle is soon underway with the ATF outside. While the boys try to make good their escape inside, Keenan is given the most awful order of his career – everyone inside must be exterminated.
The parodying of the religious right is obvious in Smith’s intentions, but I think he had a broader scope to satirise authority in general. The ATF higher ups turn out to be as bloodthirsty as the Coopers, and it’s their trigger finger approach that gets almost everyone killed – not just the bad guys – because they have no idea the Coopers have captives still alive. The scene where Jarod and Cooper family daughter Cheyenne meet their fate is one of the most shocking in recent cinema history.
But ”Red State” is first and foremost a horror film, and a very good one in general. Compared to the rest of his career though, this is easily Smith’s ”Pulp Fiction”.