SUNDANCE REVIEW: Todd McCarthy Looks At Kevin Smith's 'Red State'

Sundance Film Festival - Red State Film Still - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
A potent cinematic hand grenade tossed to bigots everywhere.

PARK CITY -- A subversive little comic horror film that represents a shot across the bow at extreme fundamentalist bigots but hits a few other targets along with them, Red State is cleverly contrarian enough to get a rise out of almost any audience.


Clearly driven by outrage over the anti-gay fulminations of some American Christian pastors, Kevin Smith’s aggressively profane script works startling twists on scare film conventions while also taking the U.S. government to task for its simplistic use of terrorist threats as an excuse to do anything it wants. Bypassing conventional distribution, Smith plans to take the innately controversial $4 million picture on the road for a series of one-night stands beginning March 5 at Radio City Music Hall, to be followed by Oct. 19 release on Smith’s SModcast. Based on the sense of showmanship Smith displayed at the protest-marked Sundance premiere, he will have no trouble luring an audience on either of these circuits.

Against the backdrop of radical religious protests at the funeral of a murdered gay student, three horny teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner) make an online date with an older woman willing to take on the trio simultaneously. After much crudely funny sex talk, the threesome sets out at night just like any boys in a hundred other teen hi-jinks comedies. Arriving at the woman’s remote rural trailer home after sideswiping the parked car of the local police chief (who’s getting serviced by another man at the time), the boys are first offered beer, from which they promptly pass out.

When the boys awaken, they realize they’ve gotten screwed, all right, but not in the way they intended. They’re now prisoners of the area’s notorious Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a man who so rabidly professes his belief that the homosexual is Satan’s agent on Earth that even the neo-Nazis disown him. He is also convinced that the End Times are nigh, that humanity has degenerated so much that “God’s done with it.” Whatever he has in store for the boys will assuredly not be pretty.

Cooper preaches to an adoring congregation of about two dozen comprising only family members and their mates. Daringly, Smith has written a sermon, if that’s indeed what it is, that goes on for something close to 15 minutes. It’s a speech that’s both hateful and hyper-articulate, a rambling but laser-sharp monologue that exhibits love for his clan, well-informed contempt for his enemies and an interpretation of the Bible that allows him to justify the murders he has already committed and those meant to serve as the climax of the program.

Making the talk all the more convincing and scary is the brilliant delivery of it by Michael Parks. Affecting a folksy down home accent and knowing just how to modulate his remarks for maximum effect, the veteran actor is mesmerizing as he spews Cooper’s hate in a way that brooks no argument. The man sings well, too. Tarantino and Rodriguez have used Parks effectively in recent years, but this is a comeback everyone will notice. As Cooper’s committed daughter, Melissa Leo goes down in a raging blaze of glory that the James Cagney of White Heat would have appreciated.

As promised, the horror finally arrives, first for Cooper’s captives and shortly thereafter for everyone, as the compound becomes the site of a Branch Davidian-type battle between the cultists, who are convinced the time has come, and government agents led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman, in an entirely wonderful performance). Keenan is a truly decent man who fulminates against the official position that their opponents are no longer to be considered religious wackos but terrorists who, once so designated, can be eliminated without hesitation. Wrap-up is satisfying dramatically and disturbing in every other conceivable way.

It goes without saying that religious conservatives will hate Red State, although those of a more libertarian stripe might appreciate Smith’s irrepressible irreverence, freewheeling subversion and tweaking of movie genre expectations. Young audiences will eat it up for the above reasons as well as for its unmistakable rebel attitude toward everything except human decency.

Nimbly directed and nicely shot on the RED camera system, the film went before the cameras on Sept. 21, a mere four months before its premiere.


Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Production: Harvey Boys
Cast: Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Kerry Bishe, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, Cooper Thornton
Director-Screenwriter: Kevin Smith
Producer: Jonathan Gordon
Executive Producers: Elyse Seiden, Nhaelan McMillan, Victor Choy, Jason Clark, Harvey Cohen, Shea Kammer
Director Of Photography: David Klein
Production Designer: Cabot McMullen
Costume Designer: Beth Pasternak
Editor: Kevin Smith
No rating, 97 minutes