Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: Kevin Smith’s Red State is leaps and bounds above the director’s previous works. While he still claims to have one more film under his belt before retiring from the industry, this is the film that will be seen as the pinnacle of his career. Smith describes the film as “the story of three boys who go into the woods to find sex, and instead, find God.” While this may sound like an inspirational tale about redemption, rest assured that the “God” our three protagonists encounter is not one that will welcome them into his arms and absolve them of their sins.
After answering a Craigslist-style sex ad, Jarod, Travis, and Billy Ray drive out into the remote town of Cooper’s Dell for a night of debauchery, but things immediately go wrong when they lose consciousness and awaken to find themselves imprisoned in a chapel in the midst of a worship service. Leading the congregation is Abin Cooper, the figurehead of the Five Points Trinity Church, a group of notorious religious fundamentalists that adopt a very literal interpretation of the Old Testament and its angry, vengeful God. A chilling display of Cooper’s dogma spurs the boys into action, as they realize they have very little hope of escaping the wrath of Cooper and his church. An escape attempt attracts the attention of the local authorities, and after a shockingly violent confrontation between Cooper and a local deputy, the situation quickly escalates into a standoff with ATF Agent Joseph Keenan and his team.
The casting is solid across the board, but Michael Parks is absolutely riveting as the family patriarch who truly believes he has been anointed by the hand of God himself to punish the wicked. He becomes completely lost in the role, and not a single word or gesture is wasted in his performance. Oscar-winner Melissa Leo also shines as Cooper’s eldest daughter, Sara, whose own zealotry threatens to sever the ties between herself and her own children. And the always-enjoyable John Goodman, as the government official who struggles with the demands of his superiors, has some of the best dialogue in the film.
Red State is a gripping, visceral look at the dangers of blind, unchecked religious fanaticism. Shot almost entirely with handheld cameras, and edited with extreme precision, the film does a marvelous job of building tension and anxiety until it explodes in a brutal display of violence. From the moment the boys awaken in the church, the film never lets up, continuing to veer into unexpected territory and wrapping up with a conclusion that no viewer would ever suspect. Smith has given us an incredibly bold piece of filmmaking that displays a growth and maturity few would ever have given him credit for, and the achievement is all the more admirable because the entire process was done just the way he wanted. From the fundraising to the guerrilla marketing to the road-show screenings, Smith has proven that he doesn’t need to play by Hollywood’s rulebook, and his refusal to do so has turned him into a better artist.
Easily the best film of his career, this is punk-rock indie filmmaking in its truest form, and I’ve never been more proud to be a Kevin Smith fan.