Clearly inspired by the fundamentalist at the Westbro Baptist Church, and the events at Waco several years ago, Red State tells the tale of three teenagers, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), who set out one night to meet Sarah (Melissa Leo), a woman that one of them met over the internet. Expecting a night of kinky sex, the boys are drugged and wake up to find themselves captured by members of the Five Points Church. The controversial church is led by Sarah’s father, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), and is known for their harsh stance on everything from race to homosexuality. Deeming the boys sinners of the worst kind, Abin and his followers plan to exact their own brand of religious justice. When the plans go awry, Abin and the rest of the Five Points Church eventually get caught up in a violent standoff with ATF agents led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman).
In order to enjoy Red State it is best to go into the film not expecting a traditional horror film. While the premise is chilling, the film plays more like a siege film than a straight forward horror. In fact, the most terrifying aspect of the film occurs in the first fifteen minutes where Smith shows the audience just how damaging fanatical idealism can be. As he points out in the film, the most disturbing thing is what people are willing to do for what they believe in.
One of the reasons Abin Cooper is such a menacing villain is that he sees his work as being something ordained by God. Parks provides a blisteringly good performance as Cooper. Parks never lets Abin go over-the-top even when he is spouting off sermons that would seem ridiculous to most people, but completely logical to the members of the Five Points Church. Parks’ charisma makes you believe that he could easily sway others into following him blindly. This is also one of the reasons why John Goodman’s Keenan is such a good contrast to Cooper. Goodman portrays Keenan as a man who is starting to lose faith in the legal institution he once believed in. The world around Keenan is changing and he does not know how to process the changes. Keenan not only wrestles with the directive he is given, but also with how he will convey those same orders to others.
The work of Parks and Goodman help to disguise some of the glaring flaws in Red State. This includes the extremely exaggerated performance by Melissa Leo. It is one thing to make her character fanatical but Leo makes the character too cartoonish. This takes away from the overall terror that the film is trying to evoke. It also must be noted that the shootout sequence goes on for far too long. While standoffs such as that would go on for days in real life, it gets rather repetitive. Having said that, it was nice to see Smith taking risks with the film especially in regards to which characters live and die.
Smith raises the stakes and keeps the audience on their toes. Many of the deaths are startling as you do not expect certain characters to die the way they do. It was also nice to see Smith abruptly change the tone of the film in the last act. The film would have faltered greatly had he just left it as a straight shootout for an hour and a half. The ending of the film will no doubt divide many viewers. It is one that is not easily digestible and may require a couple of viewings before deciding on whether or not it works. Several have compared the film to the works of Tarantino and the Coen brother, which is understandable to an extent. However, Red State does not reach the heights of say Reservoir Dogs or No Country for Old Men. Regardless, Red State was somewhat of a pleasant surprise all things considered. It has its flaws, but many of the ideas in the film worked better than originally expected.
warning trailer contains strong language: