Red State 2011 ★★★

Three teenagers in the US midwest find an online ad from a local swinger. Borrowing a parent's car they drive to her trailer for sex. When there the woman (Melissa Leo) plies them with beer, "it always takes me at least to beers to work up to the sex". Of course the dont notice the beers come out of the fridge suspiciously already open. When they wake it is as captives of an extremist christian group, the Five Points (clearly modelled on Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists Church). The church is presided over by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and they awake in the midst of a lengthy sermon, in which Cooper decries the pervasive influence of homosexuality, the media, Hollywood, etc, etc. It seems that Cooper and his congregation plan on enforcing some old testament style suffering on the sinners.

No sooner is this Hostel-esqe set up developed than it is dropped. The film switches focus from the terrified teenagers to Cooper and his flock. Due to a minor fender bender earlier in the evening a Sherriff's Deputy pays a visit to Cooper's compound and triggers a series of events that bring about a violent showdown with authority in the shape of John Goodman's ATF officer.

Red State is a chimera of a film, despite being sold as horror and described as such by Kevin Smith, it dumps genre trappings quite early. Instead the film feels like a state of the nation address by the increasingly wayward director. One area where Smith has lived up to his word, is that Red State is quite unlike the other films in his oeuvre. Although there is a thick seam of black humour running through the movie, for the most part it eschews the "dick jokes" and course humour with which Smith as become synonymous. Never the most visually arresting of directors, Red State sees Smith cutting loose, moving the camera, creating action set pieces, and using a far more dynamic editing style than we have seen from him before.

However in one area this is very much a Smith film, it is very, very talky. Certain dialogue scenes go on for far too long, leeching tension and suspense out of the situations. Although the cast is very strong, Michael Parks' antagonist is over indulged. The introduction of Pastor Cooper is a long rambling sermon that seems to be given it's own act. Goodman's character is also given a very overextended introduction.

Sometimes brilliant, but often overly didactic, Red State fails as satire. Smith's targets of ultra-right wing religious bigotry countered by an equally over-zealous and violent state reaction are very soft. One can't help feel Smith is preaching to the converted here, I mean really, is there anyone who would sit down in a theatre to watch this thinking "I don't know about that Fred Phelps guy, maybe he has a point". The Westboro Baptists are despised in the US from all shades of the political spectrum, Smith takes them as a model, then makes them even more extreme. Neither is the repressive post 9-11 reaction of the forces of authority feel plausible. Ultimately it is hard to fathom what point Smith is trying to make.

Red State is a failure, but it is a very interesting failure. Smith appears to have become a strangely tortured individual of late, openly antagonising critics and fans alike, with a series of bizarre stunts and pronouncements. But in making a film quite clearly outside of his comfort zone, he has made a film that feels like the work of an actual film director, rather than a writer grudgingly taking on that role. If Smith continues on this route (and I hope he does) he could become the slacker Oliver Stone. I have no hesitation in recommending this to fans of off-the-wall midnight movie madness although a more sober audience may well find themselves scratching their heads and wondering what the hell it's all supposed to mean.

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