"Red State" has generally been called a horror film, when it's better described as an exceptionally dark satire with some horror elements. It starts out like a typical slasher, with a trio of teenage boys, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), driving out to meet a woman they met online, who is offering sexual favors. Of course this is only a ruse, meant to lure the boys into the hands of a murderous, homophobic Christian cult, led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Modeled after the Westboro Baptist Church among others, Cooper is as charismatic as he is clearly out of his mind, living with an extended family, including daughter Sarah (Melissa Leo) and granddaughter Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), along with other worshipers on a compound called Five Points.
The situation becomes more interesting when the authorities get involved. Eventually local Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) calls in the Feds, namely Agent Keenan (John Goodman), who is investigating Cooper's group for possibly stockpiling firearms. Any argument about the film demonizing Christian groups should be tempered by the film's portrayal of the government operatives as bumbling, self-interested, borderline incompetents, blindly following the orders of superiors who are driven by petty grudges. The clash between the two groups, both ideologically fanatical in their own ways, is shocking not for the amount of violence, but for the lack of doubt or hesitation regarding mutual self-destruction on either side. Once the cult is branded as a domestic terrorist group, and the lawmen declared to be in league with Satan, there's no turning back.
I want to reiterate that this isn't a horror film. There's tension and unease in abundance, but no reals scares. "Red State" doesn't work as horror, being far too concerned with larger messages regarding religion, politics, and sexuality. And though it apes a few horror conceits and there are some gory moments, it also seems to delight in refusing to let the audience enjoy the carnage. Deaths, when they occur, are quick and clinical. It's the motivations behind the killers that are meant to disturb us. "Red State" is very smart in this regard, though maybe a little too on the nose with its messages. Despite being so different from anything that writer-director Kevin Smith has done before, his fingerprints are all over the script. This isn't the first time he's tackled social issues, but here his intentions are blatant, and his usual frathouse sensibilities are nowhere to be found. A few bleak laughs do get through, but they're more reminiscent of recent British satires like "In the Loop" and "Four Lions" than anything in the View Askew universe.
What really sells it is the direction, which is a considerable improvement over Smith's previous films. Here, he demonstrates he's perfectly capable of shooting action sequences, and knows how to summon tension and sustain a mood for his own purposes. Most of the film is shot on handheld camera, with a utilitarian visual style common for low-budget horror pictures, but a little easier on the eyes. I could actually follow the action and work out where everyone was spatially. That puts Smith ahead of a lot of directors that I could name. I think there are still some elements that could use work or that come off as gratuitous - Kevin Pollak's entire contribution to the film, for example - but I'd happily trust Smith with any thriller or horror project after this.
And even if you don't like what the director is doing, it's hard to deny the performances. Michael Parks gets a nice, long, bit of sermonizing to drive home just how evil an evil pastor can be. Melissa Leo gives what could have been a stereotypical, flat character, some welcome depths. And it's always good to see John Goodman, here playing the federal agent stuck between a rock and a hard place, who does a lot to sell the more unlikely bits of the story. Just about everyone in the film has a good veneer of reality - the horndog boys, the cult members, the police - even though the situations they're placed in are extreme, and play out in a fantastic way.
I really enjoyed "Red State," in spite of some reservations. It's not a great film, but it's one which has a coherent and distinctive point of view, good insights, and a lot passion behind it. So it aggravates me to no end that by all indications, Kevin Smith won't be pursuing other projects in a similar vein. The man wants to retire. Retire! He's barely in his forties! Oh well. At least the big galoot is leaving us on a high note.