Red State Review: Keep The Faith

RED STATE (18): On General Release Friday 30th September

Kevin Smith has had a turbulent relationship with the press. A few years ago he declared that his films “aren’t made for critics”, he had a very public spat with potential distributors at Sundance and he recently personally cancelled a press screening for Red State which hardly endeared him further to a critical audience. That’s a shame as Smith’s early work (notably Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma) is brilliant, crackling with sharp dialogue and witty observations and even his lesser-regarded films have an idiosyncratic charm which make them hard to actively dislike.

So Red State’s national press show screening comes with a statement (or an apology?) from Smith stating that it wasn’t screened for US critics because they’re idiots and imploring UK critics to make up their own minds. It’s actually a nice touch – it reminds you that Smith really does care about film, that it was his passion before it simply became his job and re-humanises him in front of people who have only recently seen his furious Twitter ranting.

Red State is certainly a departure from his normal work. There’s no Jay & Silent Bob, no snoochie boochies here. Three horny high school kids (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Ronnie Connell) desperate to get lucky, respond to a classified advert they found on a mobile phone app for group sex with a 38 year old woman (Melissa Leo). Driving out to an isolated farmstead, they prepare to get down to business only to be drugged, bound and placed in cages for execution at the hands of a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Michael Parks) and his cult followers.

Things look grim for the boys but thankfully John Goodman is on hand as head of an ATF task force. Here the film shifts its tone from torture porn set up to tense Waco-style siege as Goodman hand is forced by a trigger happy local sheriff and comes under increasing pressure to storm the building and execute everyone inside.

It’s an interesting film – one which toys with pre-conceived expectation. Smith actually shows that he can handle action scenes well and the tension, especially in the early half of the film is taut. But where Smith excels is in dialogue – he’s got a great ear for banter and the kids in the first reel feel funny and genuine.

It’s a shame then that he opts for a rather heavy-handed satire in second half. Preacher Cooper is obviously based on Fred Phelps’ foamed-flecked far right rhetoric (The Westboro Baptist Church – the choice for belligerent fundamentalists) and Red State attempts to waggle a satirical finger at the whole thing. But other than “fundamentalist nutters are bad” and “the US government often offers unreliable versions of events”, Red State doesn’t so much skewer the issue but merely frame it.

Still, there are some terrific performances – Melisssa Leo has practically carved a career for herself playing white trash (Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, The Fighter) and here she’s great – a feverish, devout and quickly vicious fanatic. Michael Parks is also suitably creepy as Preacher Cooper – he might declaim with an avuncular tone but what he speaks is pure poison. John Goodman also holds down a role of a world-weary ATF agent surprisingly well – a testament to his skills as a character actor.

Red State certainly has its flaws – the dialogue which is so good at the beginning quickly lurches into sermonising speeches, the characters are sketchily laid out and the structure is messy. But it’s great to see Kevin Smith taking chances, doing something original and bucking the trend for safe movies. You don’t need to be a critic to appreciate that.

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