Red State, 2011.
Written and Directed by Kevin Smith.
Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Kerry Bishé, Ralph Garma,n Michael Angarano, Stephen Root, Nicholas Braun and Kevin Pollak.
After responding to an online sex invitation, three horny young friends find themselves held captive by a group of ultra right-wing Christian extremists determined to unleash their own brand of bloody atonement.
Even the most hardened of Kevin Smith fans would have to admit that the filmmaker has struggled to recapture the comedy gold of his early View Askewniverse offerings with his last couple of movies, so it's refreshing to see that - following the critical lambasting of his previous effort, the Bruce Willis / Tracy Morgan buddy comedy Cop Out - Smith has returned to his indie roots as writer-director (and distributor) of his tenth feature, Red State. Foregoing the usual dick and fart jokes in favour of a dark, mature tale of hardcore religious extremism, Smith had dragged himself way out of his comfort zone, and in doing so he's delivered his best work since Chasing Amy.
Despite being marketed as a horror film, it's actually pretty difficult to describe Red State. Smith himself has called it "Quentin Tarantino by way of the Coen Brothers", and that's probably as accurate a description as you can get, right down to the casting of QT favourite Michael Parks (perhaps best known for his work as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Death Proof and Planet Terror) and Coen Brothers regular John Goodman. Starting out very much as a traditional horror, Red State opens with three teens - Kyle Gallner (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Michael Angarano (The Forbidden Kingdom) and Nicholas Braun (Sky High) - heading out into the sticks after an invitation for sex from an older woman, Sarah Cooper (The Fighter's Melissa Leo).
Unfortunately for the teens, Sarah is actually the daughter of Abin Cooper (Parks), a Fred Phelps-inspired pastor of the Five Points Trinity Church, a group of right-wing Christian fundamentalists out to punish 'sinners' for their transgressions. Drugged by Sarah, the three friends soon find themselves held captive in Cooper's church and after a hate-filled sermon from the pastor, they witness the brutal execution of a fellow 'sinner' before trying to make their escape. Meanwhile, Special Agent Keenan (Goodman) and a group of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officers arrive on the scene, laying siege to the church before receiving orders from above to embark on a Waco-style raid of the property.
Although it starts out by focussing on the three teens, as soon as Abin Cooper makes his entrance it quickly becomes clear that he’s the star of the show. If you’re familiar with Parks’ work then you’ll already know he’s great, but the veteran takes it to another level with Red State and delivers an absolutely captivating turn as the fanatical head of the Five Points Church. It is without doubt one of the best performances of 2011 and had Red State been directed by Tarantino or the Coens, then Parks would surely have found himself contesting a number of honours this awards season. As you’d expect, John Goodman is solid as the lead ATF agent, while the rest of the supporting cast are also convincing, particularly Kyle Gallner as Jared and Kerry Bishé as Cheyanne, Abin Cooper’s granddaughter.
Smith has often come under fire for his lack of visual style, but Red State is easily his most polished and visually impressive film to date, thanks in no small part to the gritty, documentary-like cinematography of regular collaborator Dave Klein. A taut, unpredictable and gripping piece of cinema, Red State really demonstrates Smith’s coming of age as a filmmaker and if this is what he’s capable of, then it’s a shame that it’s taken him so long to branch out beyond the comedy genre. It’s also a shame that he plans to bring the curtain down on his directing career with his next two-part feature Hit Somebody, and if that proves to be the case, then Red State will certainly stand out as one of the highlights on his filmmaking C.V.