Red State - movie reviewI've long dreamed that some enterprising studio type would option The Bible and dole out The Book of Revelation to Michael Bay.
Imagine Mr Transformers getting crazy with the CGI Cheese Wiz on verses like, "The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name".
It's likely I will never get my wish, but in a year dotted with big-screen explorations of the Judeo-Christian faith (whether lost, found, or confounded), I didn't expect Kevin Smith's Red State to grip me quite as intensely as it did.
That's because Smith's usual shtick - and I love "Only Ben Affleck can stop the Moonraper" as much as any decent human being - wouldn't seem to lend itself to a straight-faced thriller, but that's what Red State is. Mostly.
A trio of randy teenagers - Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) - drive to meet a trailer-dwelling hook-up who's keen on an orgy, having found her on a Grindr-meets-Craigslist casual sex network. She turns out to be Melissa Leo (as Sarah), and unfortunately for the boys, has laced their beers with Rohypnol - all the better to drag them back to her real home, the Five Points Church.
A group of Westboro-esque extremists, they're led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), an intensely charismatic preacher who gives drawn-out, hate-filled sermons that keep his followers - mostly extended family members - rapt. Not content solely to picket the funerals of local gay men, Five Points have sinister plans for the horny bros.
The boys' disappearance catches the attention of local police (led by Stephen Root as the ineffectual Sheriff Wynan), and eventually Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman), an ATF fed who has been working on the Five Points case for some time, arrives in town as things take a turn for the Branch Davidian.
As a counterpoint to the endless Takbir-hollering terrorists that populated the post-9/11 filmic landscape, Red State makes great strides in demonstrating that terrorism can just as easily be domestic, white, and in thrall to the same God as Joe Average American.
What's most surprising about the film, however, is how well it maintains its sense of eerie, oppressive tension. Cooper's first sermon, delivered in real time, is anexercise in nearly unbearable anticipation (poor Jared sits on the pulpit the whole time, housed in a sheet-covered cage), and Parks is terrific as the magnetic preacher.
Goodman is reliably captivating as the world weary Keenan. Leo won't get another Oscar as Sarah, but she's a memorable screen loony when she cracks out the automatic rifles and Bible verse. Gallner is certainly becoming the go-to man for teen-bro terror.
Unusually for a Smith film, the production values (save for some truly cringe-inducing first-person-shooter style hand-held low angle shots) are high. In particular the sound design, which comes to the fore as negotiations dissolve into a fire-fight, is outstanding.
Working in the same sort of documentary-influenced style that has become part and parcel of political message movies like The Hurt Locker, Smith trades on the believability of the scenario, at least until the feds turn up with tanks.
After all, you don't need to have watched Louis Theroux's entire back catalogue to know that America is home to some pockets of very scary extremist views indeed. So, the "it could happen" angle is what gives Red State its urgency, and when Smith isn't pulling out Kevin Smith™ moves, that urgency is well sustained.
Unfortunately, he can't help himself, which means the tension is more than occasionally shattered by a trademark Smith zinger (though I will admit to hooting at one shocker involving Kevin Pollack's character).
Similarly, the ending turns out to be disappointingly slight (if rather funny) where its lead-up momentarily promised something far more adventurous.
Smith also lets his own prejudices show a number of times with lazy dialogue; for example, did Sarah really need to follow up a request for her daughter's sweet tea with "Like a good Christian", or did Smith just need to give himself a little tingle by pointing out that har har some Christians are lame? It's an unnecessarily parodic clanger at odds with the relative restraint of the rest of the script.
It's Kevin Smith, though, which means that "all over the shop" is par for the course, and the shop that Red State wanders all over is, for the most part, compelling.
- three stars
Red State is in cinemas from today.
Join the conversation below