Red State: Kevin Smith’s Thriller Ahead of Its Time

Director, writer, podcaster – Kevin Smith is all things 90’s indie cool. But Kevin Smith, the horror movie director? Back in 2011, Smith was clearly looking to try something new. Maybe it was the experience of his dreadful Hollywood flick, Cop Out. Whatever the reason, the early part of this decade saw Smith take risks with eccentric body-horror movie, Tusk, and religious-right thriller, Red State. Lackluster box office and mixed reviews sentenced the experimental effort to obscurity. But Red State has aged much better than many would have expected.

Synopsis

Three horny teenagers respond to an older woman’s online ad looking for group sex. When the arrive at her trailer, she offers them beers to ‘loosen up’. But the drinks are drugged, and the boys pass out. Hours later, they wake up, trapped in cages, and caught in the middle of fanatical preacher Abin Cooper’s ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon. The lead of the far-right religious cult, the Five Points Trinity Church, Cooper intends to ritualistically murder the sinners his followers have caught. But when ATF agents arrive outside his church, Cooper reveals his far more insidious plans.

Red State Unfocused But More Relevant Now Then When It Was Released

Professional slacker Kevin Smith clearly hard more on his mind than pop culture navel-gazing. In this regard, Red State is arguably Smith’s most ambitious movie. Unfortunately, the story pulls itself in one too many directions. On the one hand, Red State wants to be a haunting tale of religious fanaticism in America. Abin Cooper’s Five Points Trinity Church is not so subtly patterned after the vile Westboro Baptist Church. As the story unfolds, however, Smith broadens his scope to include a biting indictment of militaristic government intervention. He even goes so far as to name-drop the Waco disaster.

Several years removed from its release, Abin Cooper is only more frightening now.

Despite Red State’s occasionally heavy-handed social commentary, there’s little denying how much more relevant the movie is today. In 2011, it would have been hard to imagine white supremacists and neo-Nazi’s staging public marches in American city centres. Intentional or not, Smith’s Red State anticipated the emergence of America’s alt-right movement and increasingly conservative social agenda. Several years removed from its release, Abin Cooper is only more frightening now.

Smith Understands the Banality of Evil

Love it or hate it, Smith’s dialogue and penchant for banter is a trademark. Not surprisingly then, Red State is a pensive, dialogue-heavy movie. Though some critics faulted the movie for its introspective stretches, Smith at least has something interesting to say. Moreover, Smith shows restraint with the movie’s violence even as he indulges his tendencies to let characters to prattle on. Cooper’s sermon and brutal sacrifice is disturbing because Smith doesn’t over-stylize the scene. Similarly, Red State’s violence is stripped of Hollywood panache, making it more shocking. No, Smith isn’t quite Tarantino. Nonetheless, Red State successfully underscores the banality – even the normalcy – of evil when it’s ignored.

Red State Boasts An Impressive Roster of Character Actors

Kevin Smith either has a lot of friends in the acting world or some undesirable photos hidden away. Regardless, Red State boasts an impressive cast of character actors. Stephen Root (Office Space), Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects), Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Kevin Alejandro (True Blood) are just some of the familiar faces who turn up. Most of these actors get brief face time in the movie. On the downside, Red State rather unceremoniously discards our three initial young protagonists pretty quickly. That is, they play only a small role in the movie’s increasing stakes and elicit little sympathy.

Cooper disturbs during his sermon because of its eerie parallels to real-world hatred

Nevertheless, Michael Parks, John Goodman, and Melissa Leo steal the movie with their performances. As fanatic religious leader Abin Cooper, Parks is equal parts charismatic and frightening. Again, it’s a performance that speaks to the banality of evil. Cooper disturbs during his sermon because of its eerie parallels to real-world hatred. Similarly, Oscar-winner Melissa Leo offers a scary window into the dangers of absolute belief. And Goodman – an underrated actor – is pitch-perfect as a weary ATF agent. It’s Goodman who emotionally anchors the movie.

Red State Improves on Subsequent Viewings

Red State is far from a perfect movie. Smith’s tendency to let his characters ramble on results in some lags. But Smith’s creative risk mostly pays off. In fact, Red State improves with subsequent viewings. First and foremost, the thriller anticipates our current struggles with rising hate, radical conservative social agendas, and fanaticism. As a result, Red State is more frightening today than it was in 2011. Contrary to expectation, Smith mostly succeeds at building tension and unease. Though audiences mostly missed it on its original release, Red State is worth re-visiting.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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