By Eric Plaag
Talk about a quease-inducing set-up: Three high school boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) get the bright idea that hooking up for a foursome with Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo), a woman whose “Craigslist of Sex” ad bills her as 35 instead of 50, would be a helluva lot of fun. In preparation for their wild night, they booze it up a bit, sideswipe and run a car in which the local Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) is getting head from his gay lover, then settle in for “the devil’s work” at the woman’s trailer. It turns out, though, that Sarah has other plans for the boys. When they awaken from their ruffied stupor, they find themselves bound and gagged, stuffed into the basement holding pen of the nearby Five Points Church, a gay-hating, Westboro Baptist-like congregation run by the very righteously vindictive Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).
Yikes, indeed. But that is exactly how Kevin Smith opens his recent independent film Red State, a self-distributed venture that Smith claims (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, no doubt) that he modeled on the distribution scheme for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and damn if this doesn’t work like gangbusters, even if the film does exhibit some strange visual paradoxes. Looking as if it was shot by the local college media arts crew with a roster of A-list actors that at first glance seem as if they have no business being here, Red State grabs you by the short hairs early, and it never lets up. After seeing the parishioners execute an earlier captive for the “waste of shame” (i.e., homosexual acts) that Pastor Cooper insists has already destroyed his spirit, one of the captured boys wiggles free from the holding pen and stumbles upon a huge cache of automatic weapons in the basement. His escape doesn’t last long — Cooper’s parishioners make sure of that — but in the process he gets off a few rounds that are overheard by a local deputy interviewing Pastor Cooper outside at that very moment. Left with little choice, Cooper’s crew kills the deputy, too, a brutal execution that Sheriff Wynan hears play out over the police radio. Cooper doesn’t flinch at this turn, though, telling Wynan that he’s witnessed and documented Wynan’s “unnatural” acts, too, and that if Wynan does or says anything, he’ll send the tapes to Wynan’s wife.
All of this stürm and drang might seem a bit over the top or hokey, but there’s something about Smith’s pacing and scripting that makes all of it far more truly horrific than one might expect. It turns out that Smith’s low-budget aesthetic is remarkably effective, too, making those A-list actors look tired and well-worn in a way that fits Red State’s backwater setting and mood. Among those A-listers is Melissa Leo, whose strangely smoky turn as Sarah Cooper, the trailer whore, quickly transforms into the decidedly unsettling and bat-shit crazy daughter of Pastor Cooper. I’ve not been a fan in the past, but here Leo balances her manic tendencies with her character’s knowledge that sometimes a good strategy calls for sugary sweet calm. Called in to deal with all of this mess is ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), a man who knows full well that the all-out raid ordered by his superiors will necessitate killing every last person inside the compound, including any surviving hostages and the dozen or so young children believed to be held inside. Goodman is exactly what we would want and expect, a seeming voice of reason that has itself lost its reasonableness in the midst of chaos. Far and away, though, the best performance in Red State comes from Michael Parks, whose Pastor Cooper is perfectly nuanced without ever flirting with caricature, right down to the pitch-perfect cadence of his long sermon early in the film (which is essential viewing) and the chilling zeal with which he can confront his eventual undoing without even a trace of fear. The fact that this outstanding, Oscar-worthy performance will be left off of the major awards lists this year is no less a crime simply because it’s so predictable.
Smith’s writing and direction may be at its best here, too. When one of the hostages breaks free early in the standoff and makes it out into the compound yard, Smith never allows us to linger on the possible motives for why the sheriff shoots that hostage with deadly precision while under strict orders not to fire. Instead, Keenan dismisses him as a trigger-happy yahoo and locks him in his car, which is exactly right given that Keenan could not know the powerful motivation Wynan has for seeing that hostage dead. Likewise, it must have been very tempting for Smith to let a subplot involving Cooper’s granddaughter (the only sort-of sane member of the group) and a surviving hostage play out in heroic fashion, but Smith has been around long enough to know better. Such heroics have no place here, not in this Tarantino-like universe of surreal realism. Smith’s best turn, though, comes near the end of Red State, when the climax of the raid on the Five Points Church is interrupted by an ear-splitting succession of trumpet blasts from the sky, an intervention that takes everyone by surprise and just might be the heralding of the end times Cooper has been saying all along were imminent. I’ll not say how it turns out, but I promise you that you won’t see this ending coming.
Reading this as Smith’s homage to the Tarantino universe probably is about on point. Stocked with familiar actors from Tarantino’s worlds and run for a week at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema (in order to make the film eligible for award consideration), Red State traverses the same kinds of territory without ever seeming unoriginal or too fawning in its appreciation for the genre. “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled,” Keenan says at one point. “But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.” Red State is exactly the kind of film where Keenan can get away with saying that because the audience knows he’s right after what it’s just seen; he’s earned our belief in such a conclusion. Red State is also the kind of film that has no clear winners and losers, no good guys or bad guys, not unlike Pulp Fiction, because here we see in palpable, indelible fashion that everyone has an agenda, all the time, and the conflicts of the world arise not because good runs into evil, but because one self-centered agenda collides with another self-centered agenda, and the inevitable outcome is nevertheless unpredictable.
DVD and Streaming, 4 out of 5 stars