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I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.
Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”
As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.
One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.
Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.