Red State (2011) concerns the kidnapping of three high school kids by the religious sect ran by the Cooper family. The Cooper family are described early on as “the people even the Nazi's think are nut jobs”. The kids are taken to the Cooper family home, a heavily barracked church compound. Billed as the first Kevin Smith horror film, this is certainly a departure from his usual fare in many ways, especially aesthetically. Red State is shot on DV and the washed out, dark imagery is a notable contrast to the vibrant colour of many of his previous efforts (Clerks the obvious black and white exception). Smith even shows more comfort in moving his camera, a blistering chase scene through the churches compound during the mid point of the movie is thrilling, showing that Smith may be maturing in terms of his film-making technique.
There are plenty of scenes that utilise his standard static shots, but where in the past this seemed to be due to Smith's self proclaimed technical limitations, here the scenes where Smith chooses to use a static camera he does so for a purpose. By broadening his stylistic palette Smith has allowed himself the freedom to tell his story through the framing of his images to complement his long standing talent for dialogue . While Smith certainly seems more comfortable trying out new ways to make each scene work there is still a sense he hasn't mastered his craft just yet, the third act consists of perhaps too many repetitive shots of wacko right wingers shooting guns out of windows, the editing not crisp enough to add the sense of urgency these scenes cry out for.
As far as this being Smith's first horror film, the genre tag doesn't quite fit in the way you expect it to. Some of the early scenes of the three kids being hoodwinked into a suitably horrific situation via the promise of group sex with a 38 year old in a caravan suggest that this is going to be standard horror fare mixed with Smith's unique humour. However once we reach the inside of the church compound and witness its inner goings on, Smith's true intentions become apparent. The horror here is not that of the normal slasher movie you may have expected, but in the self-righteous, bigoted and dangerously conservative attitudes of the terrifyingly hardcore religious fundamentalists. The Cooper family aren't of the same breed of movie only villains like Jason or Michael Myers, these villains are grounded in a reality that Smith knows very well.
An exaggeration (or perhaps not such an exaggeration) of real life religious fanatic families such as the Phelps family (check out Louis Theroux's great documentary The Most Hated Family In America (2007) and its follow up to find out more about these guys), the Cooper family are truly frightening because they do exist in apparently great numbers outside of the dark confines of the movie theatre. Whereas Dogma (1999) used comedy to explore the hypocrisy of organized religion, here the true horror of religious fanaticism is shown. Seeing this type of mindless fanatic, and the horrors they will go to in order to sate their blood lust and reinforce their delusions, is particularly interesting when shot through the lens of the Catholic Smith.
As with Dogma, this film isn't simply an attack on faith so much as an attack on the hypocrisy and dangers inherent in any institution that deems itself all-powerful and believe themselves to always be in the right. One of the final scenes with John Goodman's ATF agent discussing with his higher ups the aftermath of the films main set-piece, the raid on the church compound, is funny and scary at once. This scene plays out in almost coen-esque farcical fashion, showing that while those with the apparent power may tell us exactly what we need, ordering us in a voice booming with authority, in fact even the highest authority is pretty much just winging it and hoping we don't find out.
Talking of John Goodman, he is on great form here, contrasting the strong and tough minded elements of his character that his job requires with the incredulity he feels at the crazy world that surrounds him. The stand out performance has to be Michael Parks, perhaps best known as Earl McGraw from several Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, his southern drawl and strange mixture of friendly charm and menace is perfect for the role of nut job Abin Cooper. Character actor Stephen Root (Milton from Office Space(1999)) is also great in the small but amusing role of Sheriff Wynan.
For any long time fan of Kevin Smith it is encouraging to see him test himself as a film-maker by not falling back into his own comfort zone. Red State is in no way ground breaking and suffers from many faults, many of which I'm sure his detractors will revel in, but it does show a much-loved director pushing through his own boundaries. While the film may indeed be a minor piece, never reaching the heights of Dogma, it does suggest that perhaps the best is yet to come from Smith. The final line of dialogue will likely send you out of the cinema with a smile on your face, as it did me, its simplicity and timing infinitely amusing, and isn't that what has always made Smith's films so lovable in the first place. Of course it wouldn't be a Kevin Smith movie without a dick joke or two, in fact it only takes five minutes of the films running time to provide a few of these.