Sunday, May 1, 2011

'Red State' Review - An Unexpected and Twisted Film From the Mind of Kevin Smith

I never thought I'd see a filmmaker reinvent themselves so much that the entire length of movie, I forgot who directed it. But Kevin Smith has absolutely done that with his new film Red State. Smith, who is best known for his wildly vulgar and geek friendly comedies such as Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy, decided to take on some very dark material and has created a very bleak, unsettling movie that is much like an exploitation movies of the 70s. It took over four years for him to get this made, and in a way I can see why. But any studio who would have picked it up would have ruined what Smith was trying to do. Making this as an independent film was absolutely the way to go. Even more impressive was the cast he was able to assemble for this. You have Michael Park as Pastor Abin Cooper, leader of the Five Points Church, Academy award winner Melissa Leo as his daughter Sarah, John Goodman as ATF Agent Keenan, and a whose who of young up and coming Hollywood actors.

The film itself was inspired by Fred Phelps and his family of the Westboro Baptist Church. Many of you who recognize that name probably feel unnerved or angered by it. For those of you who do not, here is a little background: The Westboro Baptist Church is made up of about 71 members, most of whom are in the Phelps family. They are known in particular for picketing funerals of deceased soldiers, are fully behind the anti-gay movement, and are known for their stance of saying "God Hates (Insert just about anything here)". 

Smith has taken the essence of that idea, and turned it up to 11. The movie begins when our young protagonist Travis (Angarano) drives past the funeral of a teenager from his school, who we learn was gay. Amidst the funeral patrons we see Abin Cooper (Parks) and his Five Points Church picketing and tormenting the family. As Travis arrives at school, his friends Jared (Gallner) and Billy Ray (Braun) tell him they have a plan to meet up with an older women from the internet and sleep with her. A simple plan, but nothing could be further from the truth. As the boys arrive at the meeting place, the whole film is turned upside down, grabbing the audience and never letting go from this point on. The boys are captured by Cooper and his church to be tortured and killed for their sins. But all hell eventually breaks lose, and the movie is off and running like a roller coaster. It twists and turns the audience leaving you unnerved, shocked, and even cheering for what happens.

I find that Smith has created one of films best villains with Abin Cooper, and much of that credit goes to Michael Parks for bringing the character to life. He is a very twisted individual who believes that what he is doing is right, and he's doing it for God. And to me, there is nothing scarier than someone who believes he is killing for God. I couldn't praise Parks enough for this movie. He gives a performance that is Oscar material. The way he talks is so calm and collected, yet everything he says is scathing and evil. He is just incredibly terrifying to watch. He has power and a way with words. Nothing shows that better than Melissa Leo's character Sarah, the daughter of Cooper. She has been raised in this environment her whole life, and sounds very much like her father. Even at one point turning on her daughter, which is one of the most terrifying moments in the film. 

But to me, the biggest standout was John Goodman's character Keenan. Goodman brought so much life to this older, tired ATF agent who would like to see nothing more than Five Points Church brought down. To him, they're not just Religious fundamentalists, they're terrorists who are harboring weapons, planning mall bombings, and murdering innocents. The way Goodman reacts to the whole situation is very real. At one point, he must take an order from a higher up that he doesn't want to do, but has to do. It was incredibly acted, and without Goodman, I don't think the scene would have been as well done. 

And last, but certainly not least, I can't go without mentioning Michael Angarano, Kyle Gellner, and Nicholas Braun, the three teenage protagonist in the film. They are the catalyst for everything that happens, and our eyes into the twistdr world Abin Cooper has created. They all do an incredibly job at conveying the fear, confusion, and anger that comes with the situation. I haven't been this impressed with a young cast in a long time. They really brought an A-game with them and I look forward to seeing more of them in the future.

Smith really left his comfort zone with this, and it's incredible. I'm just blown away by the way he brought this dark film together and created such an intense, exciting, action packed film. He has shown that he really has grown as a filmmaker, which makes me that much sadder to see him leaving Hollywood as a director after his next film. I've been an avid Smith fan for the better part of a decade now, and to see him closing the book on his film career is really a sad thing. I just can't imagine a world without Smith's commentary and pop culture referencing. To me, last night showed me Smith still has something left to offer us. He's moved away from the pop culture references and moved into a new direction. If Hit Somebody is anywhere near as good as Red State, he'll be going out on a career high. And from what I've seen so far from the script, he absolutely will be. 

Kevin Smith's Red State dares to do things most filmmakers won't do. It pushes the audience into very uncomfortable territory, and strikes the nerves in a way thats not usually done in Hollywood. Packed with an incredible cast, very well done cinematography, and a very interesting story, Red State is everything I could want out of a film. This film will test you, and I for one am glad to have gone through it. Just an incredible film on many levels.


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