Sundance Review: Red State

Monday, January 24 by

I love Kevin Smith movies. His point of view on the world makes me feel like someone really gets it, in comedy, with social commentary or drama. Red State would be a great film if anyone had made it but it’s no surprise to me that it came from Kevin Smith.

Red State is fast-paced, sets up the premise and themes, then just gets going. Travis (Michael Angarano) drives past a protest at a funeral for a gay suicide. That sets the stage for religious homophobia, and he arrives late for a classroom discussion about the first amendment. That lays out all the exposition and establishes Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) as Travis’s buddies.

Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) leads the church protests, and he’s so extreme even admitted Nazis condemn him. Actually, Travis, Jared and Billy Ray are kind of homophobic too. They call each other gay slurs and Billy Ray really worries about the mechanics of the four-way they plan to have with an internet date. A familiar Kevin Smith subject now illustrates how homophobia exists in many stages, not always evil but still wrong. A sheriff (Stephen Root) has secret gay trysts while he’s married, because some people are so scared they can’t even come out.

Well, you know this isn’t the story of a four-way orgy, so the boys end up trapped by Cooper, who thinks they’re gay. The extended sermon by Cooper, basically a cult ceremony, slowly adds disturbing elements to stretch our tension. You can see the hate on the faces of the parishioners even without speaking. That articulate Kevin Smith dialogue is frightening in Cooper. Smith knows the opponents of tolerance well enough to expose them. I would ask though, where do a bunch of gay bashing preachers get a ball gag?

The intensity is brutal, like relentless horror movies where even the survivors, if there are any, still go through hell. The teens really act like scared kids. Billy Ray wants his mom. It’s an intellectual Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where hate is the murde weapon. And guns, but it’s the conviction of Cooper’s tribe that kills. The cameras shake but it’s more akin to guerilla horror, and Smith still keeps everyone in frame and in focus.

Halfway in, Red State turns into an action movie and a relevant, scary one. ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) leads the charge against the Cooper compound. This speaks to how the law deals with groups like Cooper’s and how such groups maintain themselves. It’s an impossible circumstance. You can’t root for the ATF because there are little kids in Cooper’s church. The film switches focus between the teens, the law and the church to disorient the audience. It really flows.

I agree with the point Smith is making. I think this is how dangerous hate can get if circumstances are allowed to escalate. Two agents at the end of the film talk blatantly like Smith himself talks. It’s uncharacteristic of the rest of the film but perhaps that’s the director’s own voice coming through.

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