Directed By: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman
Tag line: "Love thy neighbor"
Trivia: Samuel L. Jackson was considered for the role that eventually went to John Goodman
If you think you know what to expect from a Kevin Smith movie, think again. After years of writing and directing edgy comedies like Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith makes a hard right turn into new territory with 2011’s Red State, and the results, to put it simply, are extraordinary.
Teenager Travis (Michael Angarano) agrees to accompany his friends Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) on what they hope will be a fun-filled erotic adventure (For weeks, Jarod has been communicating on-line with a 30+ year old woman in the next town over, played by Melissa Leo, who has agreed to have sex with all three of them at the same time). But instead of an X-rated romp, the buddies are drugged, and then taken to the Five Points Trinity Church, which serves as the home base of the radical Cooper clan. Headed by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who preaches that homosexuality and fornication are destroying the American way, the family holds a special nighttime “prayer meeting”, at which they intend to teach the three frightened youths a lesson they won’t soon forget.
But a chance encounter that Travis and the others had with Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) earlier in the evening leads to a turn of events that the Coopers weren’t expecting, and by the time the sun comes up, the entire church compound is surrounded by agents from the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Under the command of Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who for months has been investigating reports that the Coopers were purchasing automatic assault rifles, the agents attempt to search the premises, only to be attacked by Abin Cooper and his brood (who are, indeed, heavily armed).
As events unfold, Agent Keenan finds himself wrestling with the orders issued by his superiors (who have stated, in no uncertain terms, that they’d be just as happy if none of the Coopers survived the ordeal), while inside the church, Cheyenne Cooper (Kerry Bishé), Abin’s granddaughter, tries to figure out a way to save her younger siblings and cousins from the violent fate that awaits the rest of the family.
Across the board, the performances in Red State are superb. As the trio of sex-hungry teens, Angarano, Gallner and Braun manage to make us care about characters that are (more often than not) loud, abrasive, and even kinda dumb; while John Goodman brings an authority to the conflicted G-man who must decide between saving his career and doing what he knows is right. As for the Cooper family, Melissa Leo gives a haunting performance as the temptress who turns out to be Abin Cooper’s beloved daughter, and Kerry Bishé convincingly portrays a concerned teen doing her damnedest to keep the children from suffering for the sins of their parents.
The show-stopper, however, is Michael Parks as Abin Cooper, the often calm and collected patriarch / preacher who spews hatred from the pulpit, and believes at all times he’s doing the work of the Lord (as the film opens, the Coopers are protesting the funeral of a murdered homosexual teenager, carrying signs that say, among other things, all gays are going to hell). In what is the movie’s most chilling sequence, Abin Cooper delivers a 10-minute or so sermon, during which he says God is not the forgiving type, and wants the faithful to stomp out sin using whatever means necessary. As charismatic as he is terrifying, Abin Cooper makes for one hell of a screen villain, and it’s thanks to Parks that we fear and despise him as much as we do.
In addition to its excellent cast, Kevin Smith ensures that Red State is also a very stylish film; there’s plenty of hand-held camerawork throughout, and the firefight between the government agents and the Coopers, with its rapid cuts and sudden moments of violence, is as intense as they come. Having been a fan of Smith’s since Clerks, I admit I didn’t know what to expect going into Red State, but based on the results, I’m hoping he continues along this same path (for a while, at least). Dark and brilliant, Red State is an unforgettable experience.