Sean K. Cureton

Recommendation of the Week: Red State (2011)

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Theatrical Poster

Red State (2011)
Directed by Kevin Smith
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Red State is an independent action-horror film written and directed by New Jersey native Kevin Smith, which had its premier at the Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently self-distributed by Smith, with a commercial release date of October 19, 2011. At the center of what might be Smith’s greatest film so far, the gregarious auteur found creative inspiration in the activities and ideology of the Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church, the cult-like, hate group most well known for its “God Hates Fags” sloganeering. By heightening the activities of this already volatile and rage fueled sect to the level of outright violence and terror cell activity in his film, Smith’s fictitious Five Points Trinity Church attempts to reveal the very real potential for offensive violence in the relatively dormant Westboro Church of reality. At times a comedy, a thriller, and a bondage-based horror film, Smith’s Red State has all the menace and sheer terror of the average multiplex slasher feature, while backing a relatively well thought-out political agenda. While Red State is certainly no indication of greater things to come from Smith as a creative entity, it is one of the better films within the View Askew oeuvre, and proof of Smith’s often dismissed intelligence and humanity.

At the center of Smith’s first foray into the realm of horror is the captivating performance from American actor Michael Parks, as the malevolent Pastor Abin Cooper. Played with sadistic relish and affected sincerity, Parks’ performance is nothing short of brilliant, and is the break away success of the entire film. Played off as a well seeming dodderer, Pastor Cooper very quickly becomes the instigator of much of the film’s violence and horror, using his status as a religious leader to sway the minds and actions of those under the spell of his mellifluous rhetoric. As the film’s plot progresses, and the Pastor’s teachings begin to be put into action, there is no escaping the frightening aura of Parks’ performance, as it begins to take over the fabric of the film’s reality. Where actual hate group leader Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, is simply annoying, as John Goodman’s character says in passing during the film’s third act, Pastor Abin Cooper is deadly, and knows how to fire a semi-automatic rifle.

Beyond the obvious thrills of the film’s religious cult plot, there is also the much broader criticisms aimed at the United States Federal Government, and the ways in which it deals with crises of domestic terrorism, for better or worse. At the beginning of the third act, the audience is introduced to ATF Agent Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman, who is called in to handle what in the course of the film becomes a hostage situation at Cooper’s church. Inevitably, due to the volatility of the church’s members, coupled with their ready access to a bunker’s worth of weapons and ammunition, an all out “holy war” breaks out, with heavy casualties on both sides. When the film ends, Agent Keenan is put on trial, Cooper and a small number of his remaining followers are behind bars, and the entire Five Points Trinity Church has been taken by force by government agents. It’s hard to lay blame on anyone at the film’s conclusion, though there are faults on both sides, which is how Smith prefers to address questions of religious fanaticism, as can be seen in his Catholic comedy Dogma. As in Dogma, Smith attributes all of Red State’s violence to a secularized understanding of simple beliefs which lead people to savagery, which is coherent, while being sufficiently vague enough to keep Smith’s film from the realm of a more serious critical consideration of the religious and political issues at hand.

All things considered, both effective horror movie tropes and critical shortcomings in mind, Kevin Smith’s Red State is still one of the best films of the director’s career. In deciding to tackle religious zealotry once again, but this time within the horror genre, Smith is able to address some of the ideological shortcomings of his prior religious film Dogma, while offering something that fans of his work have never seen from him before. Not since Chasing Amy has Smith been this honest, forthright, and impassioned about the story he is trying to tell, and the finished film is a shining example of his dedication to the project. Red State is frightening, action packed, and surprisingly insightful about contemporary political and religious issues which have become more and more prevalent in a modern age where homosexuality is becoming more accepted as normal human behavior, and the actions of the U.S. government is held to an ever higher degree of public scrutiny and dissatisfaction. While Smith’s film may not have all the answers to the rather ambitious questions it poses, it at least addresses the issues in a way that is entertaining and honest, which is something that Kevin Smith has always been able to do well, love him or hate him.

Red State is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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