Stellar acting from a few key players helps to hide some of the seams but Red State sports a rather clunky narrative and feels unevenly-paced, laying it on thick in places and then glossing over details elsewhere.
The latest film from writer-director Kevin Smith stands in stark contrast to his usual comedic fare. This time around, Smith opts for something darker as he tells the story of Abin Cooper and his Five Points Church, a militant, anti-homosexual religious group.
Narrative problems begin to crop up right away. In the opening scenes, we see church members picketing a funeral with anti-gay slogans. From this, you gather they’re essentially like the Westboro Baptist Church. But in case that was too subtle, Smith hammers the point home in the next scene as a classroom full of high school students discuss (read: deliver exposition about) the Cooper clan. The scene is relatively brief so it doesn’t come across as too heavy-handed, but it feels like an unnecessary recap of things we already know or could reasonably assume.
From there things pick up as we follow a trio of horny teens to a what they think is a rendezvous with a lonely housewife (Melissa Leo, sadly wasted in the role). It turns out to be a setup, and soon the kids find themselves bound and gagged, at the mercy of Cooper and his followers. And unlike their Westboro Baptist counterparts (suers, not doers as one character notes), the Five Pointers are gun nuts, all too eager to “send the sinner straight to hell” at the behest of their leader.
Here we get thoroughly acquainted with that leader, Abin Cooper (played by Michael Parks). He delivers a 10-minute-long sermon in which he lays out all his viewpoints for anyone who might still be confused. This is a lengthy stretch of time to have one person talking almost uninterrupted, but it works for two reasons. First and foremost, Parks is captivating and utterly convincing. He runs the gamut from charming to chilling during his address, and at some point Cooper ceases to be a character and starts to feel frighteningly real. Secondly, Smith and cinematographer Dave Klein shoot the sermon in an engaging way. Gone are the Clerks days when a character would just walk into frame and spit out dialogue in one massively long take. Instead, we see a variety of angles and cutaways. This helps keep the scene’s momentum going.
Speaking of visuals, this film is a mixed bag. For the first time, Smith employs a handheld, almost frenetic shooting style. There’s some pretty extreme shaky-cam going on in some of the scenes. It’s a huge departure for him, and it feels like a good choice given the sinister subject matter. On the down side, Smith still doesn’t quite seem to know how to stage action. He repeatedly recycles the same shots. Nevertheless, his much maligned visual style shows continual improvement.
The first major speed bump in the film comes with the introduction of the town sheriff (played by Stephen Root). He bumbles into a standoff of sorts with Cooper, and winds up left with a decision that could alter his life forever. This is a key moment in the film, but rather than slow things down to really let the weight of this dilemma sink in, Smith sloppily jump cuts through the scene. We don’t get inside the sheriff’s head at all, and there’s no time for us to sympathize with his plight. His decision is simply another plot point to be checked off as the film races on to the next scene.
Sadly, thin characterizations like that of the sheriff are the order of the day. Abin Cooper aside, none of the characters in Red State are fleshed out in much detail, and the cast are left to their own devices to fill in the blanks. Luckily for Smith (and the audience), they’re mostly up to the challenge.
John Goodman plays a “seen it all, done it all” ATF agent brought in to deal with the Coopers. The character is basically used to deliver more exposition, but Goodman instils the role with some real humanity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show up until the film is almost half over. Then you have Kerry Bishé as Cheyenne, the one member of the Cooper clan who seems to have a conscience. Her character is barely established early on, so her sudden reappearance in the final third of the film also feels a bit out of left field. To her credit, Bishé gamely makes up for her character’s long absence, delivering an incredibly raw, emotionally wrenching performance that stands alongside Parks’ as the best in the film. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Red State runs just 88 minutes, so it’s hard not to think about how much better it might’ve been if a little more time had been spent setting up characters (like those played by Root, Goodman, and Bishé) earlier on. As it stands, you’re halfway through the film before you’re introduced to anyone worth caring about, and that’s a real problem. Worse still, the good work done by the actors is squandered in the film’s implausible later scenes. At a critical moment the action jumps forward in time, cutting to a scene of characters sitting around talking about what just happened. The writing in this scene is actually pretty good (in particular, Goodman gives a nice speech), but it’s telling instead of showing, and it yanks the viewer out of the moment.
In the end, Red State is absolutely worth seeing, but only because of the great performances in it. As a narrative it’s a disappointing jumble.