Kevin Smith plus . . . horror?
Well, not exactly. It was promoted as a horror movie, but Red State is really a strange, grim, action-comedy thriller thing with bits of horror and religious mania thrown in for good measure. It’s definitely unlike almost anything Kevin Smith has ever done before. But is that a good thing?
Mostly, yeah. I think it is.
A few teenagers get an email from a woman who wants to have sex with them. They’re like, hells to the yes, and drive off to meet her. Unfortunately for them, the lady is a part of the fundamentalist Five Points Church, and what she and the congregation have in mind for the evening has less to do with sex and more to do with violence. Eventually, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) and his team get involved.
1. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this one. I don’t think Red State‘s a perfect film, but I think it’s an interesting one. It’s certainly one of the most interesting things Kevin Smith has done in a while, and it makes me excited to see what he’ll do next. I had an awesome time seeing Kevin Smith live a few years ago, but I think the last film he made that I really loved was done back in, oh yeah, 1999. This had stuff I liked, stuff I didn’t like, but at least it felt fresh.
2. I like to read other people’s reviews of a movie while writing my own. I find it interesting to see if they liked the same things I liked. It’s also a good way to remind myself of scenes that I thought were cool (or ridiculous) but totally forgot to mention.
I bring this up because I’ve found that reading reviews for Red State has been incredibly frustrating. Some of them won’t stop talking about the work Kevin Smith’s most known for, namely his earlier films. Other reviews are so caught up discussing the marketing—usually condemning the marketing, to be honest—that they don’t bother to review the actual movie itself, just the VOD or the whole “one day in theaters” approach. I do not care about any that bullshit, so I won’t be bothering to put forth an opinion on it. As far as the actual movie goes, however . . .
3. . . . one of the things I like best about it is how just about anybody can die. A lot of people are killed in Red State. It’s a fairly violent film, and more than that, it’s an abruptly violent film. I value movies that can surprise me when they actually kill off somebody, and Red State managed to do it, more than once, even. It raises the stakes for the audience. It’s hard to become invested in a story when you can predict not only who’s going to die, but when and where they’ll do it.
4. I generally like the acting in this film. The boys do what they’re supposed to do, and that’s fine, but the actors I want to talk about are Melissa Leo, Michael Parks, and John Goodman.
Some people knocked Melissa Leo for overacting, but I thought she was easily the creepiest person in the whole congregation. She channels her best Piper Laurie for this film, and I found her enjoyable to watch. I actually wish she had been given more screen time because I think she could have been a really memorable villain.
Michael Parks is a really good fit for Pastor Abin Cooper. The problems I have with him have more to do with script than acting. There’s this one sermon in the film that goes on and on and on and on. Michael Parks delivers it as best he can, but that monologue needs some serious editing. The idea is there, and Michael Parks sells it well, but there’s something missing in Cooper’s character that stops him from being a great villain.
It’s hard to put my finger on what it is, exactly, but there’s just something I really enjoy about John Goodman’s performance. He has a dry delivery that suits the material well. Red State is littered with fairly unlikable characters. John Goodman may be one of the more sympathetic ones, but even he’s hardly a paragon of morality. I think it’s Goodman’s performance that keeps his character fairly relatable.
5. Also quick props to Goodman’s supporting cast of cops: Kevin Alejandro, Mark Blucas, and Kevin Pollak. God bless Kevin Pollak and his eternal awesomeness. He and Goodman play off each other nicely.
6. Some quotes:
ASAC Brooks: “How much do you think a cross like that costs?”
Agent Keenan: “Do you mean in dollars or common sense?”
Jarod: “It’s like Craigslist for people who want to get fucked.”
Travis: “I thought Craigslist was Craigslist for people who want to get fucked.”
Agent Keenan: “Come out with your hands up and you will not be harmed, repeat, you will not be harmed.”
ASAC Brooks: “I think it’s the use of the word repeat that makes this work every time.”
Cheyenne: “They’re going to kill my family!”
That last one kind of has to be understood in context, I suppose.
7. Finally, before spoilers (and boy, are there a lot of spoilers): I kind of like the ending that the film provides—at least, I enjoy the scene—but I read about an alternative ending that seems to be a better fit for the movie. Admittedly, the alternative ending is dramatically weirder than the real one, but for once, I actually think it would have improved the finished product.
Want to know what it was? Follow below.
None of the boys make it out alive. For some reason, I like that.
The first kid, Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), is the first to go. No big surprise there . . . he seems to be the dumbest of the three, he’s got a bit of a mullet, and his name is Billy-Ray. Honestly, it’s a bit of a given.
He and Travis (Michael Angarano) are tied up in the basement directly underneath the church. Jarod (Kyle Gallner) is locked up in a cage inside the church. There’s also a dude wrapped up in an obscene amount of Saran wrap tied to a giant cross. In what is easily the creepiest scene in the whole film, Pastor Abin Cooper steps up and shoots Saran Wrap Man directly through the top of the head. The congregation opens the trap door in the floor of the church, pushes Saran Wrap Man’s Corpse on top of the boys, and pulls Jarod out of the cage to put him on the cross next.
Billy-Ray gets loose and runs off, leaving Travis, who’s still struggling with his bonds, behind. Billy-Ray ends up in a room full of guns. He grabs one of them and shoots the guy who’s been chasing him. Unfortunately, that guy shoots the shit out of him, too. They both die.
The rest of the congregation hears the gunshots and follows. They find both Billy-Ray and Travis dead in the gun room, as well as Church Dude. (I think he might be Melissa Leo’s hubbie, but I can’t remember for sure.) They leave the room, and just as you’re thinking, wait, why is Travis dead, he sits up. He’s also freed himself, you see, and made the others believe that he escaped and died with Billy-Ray. Clever boy.
In the meantime, a whole bunch of ATF agents are outside the compound. A few hours before, the Sheriff’s deputy went to investigate who sideswiped the Sheriff’s car (answer: the boys) and got shot by Pastor Cooper for his trouble. The Pastor tries to blackmail the Sheriff (Stephen Root) into staying away by threatening to tell the Sheriff’s wife that he’s gay, but the Sheriff ends up calling in the ATF.
So, back to Travis. He grabs a gun and makes a break for it, running for the cops, and he’s almost, almost there when he gets shot and killed—by the fucking Sheriff. Now, this is actually both a little bit sad (he was so close) and more than a little bit surprising. Up till now, Travis has seemed to be the protagonist. Admittedly, characterization isn’t this movie’s strongest point, but the film begins with Travis’s POV, and he seems like the nicest of the three friends. His dying wouldn’t be so surprising at the end, maybe, but it’s probably only forty-five minutes or so into the movie.
Travis gets shot because the Sheriff mistakes him for one of the terrorists, yelling that he had a gun—although he wasn’t pointing or shooting it—and was running right at them. Agent Keenan (Goodman) gets all up in his face, and pretty much throws him into a squad car. Angry John Goodman is fun to watch, but there’s something about the Sheriff that doesn’t quite sit right with me. I like Stephen Root, and Incompetent Small Town Sheriff is pretty much a staple in these types of movies, so Incompetent Small Town Gay Sheriff shouldn’t be a big deal . . . but there’s just something about his character that comes off as a cross between an obvious plot device and a bad joke. I’m not exactly sure how to fix it, but I think there’s just something off about the writing here. His whole character seems like one of the weaker parts of the movie.
Keenan tries to reason with Cooper’s people, but that only results in Kevin Pollak getting half his face blown off. (This is also hugely surprising. Not that he dies, mind you, but just how suddenly it happens. Pollak’s maybe in this movie for all of four minutes. I was sorry to see him go. I love dry Kevin Pollak. I should really watch The Usual Suspects again. Anyway.)
Pollak’s death quickly turns the attempted negotiation into a shoot-out. Over the phone, Keenan’s boss tells him to kill every man, woman, and child on the compound—so that there will be no witnesses to protest this cock-up—and while Keenan argues against it, he agrees because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his career. Harry (Kevin Alejandro) appears to be the ATF voice of reason, protesting that this is murder, but Keenan pretty much just tells him to nut up or shut up. (Or both, really.)
In the shoot-out, the Sheriff gets killed just sitting in the car. That man can’t even hide competently. Mark Blucas, sadly, gets killed too. He’s one of the nicer ATF agents, and like My Soul to Take could have told him, compassion is not a virtue, or at least, not compatible with survival. Blucas tries to save some of the church kids and only gets shot in the back for his trouble. Despite the fact that his character has even less screen time than Kevin Pollak, you feel sorry for him. Probably because there aren’t that many people to actually root for in Red State.
Even Jarod isn’t exactly super sympathetic. Cheyenne, one of the young girls who lives at the compound, unbinds him and wants his help to get her younger brothers and sisters out free. Jarod refuses because her crazy ass family kidnapped him and murdered his two best friends. Which . . . yeah, it’s not hard to understand that, but these are little children he’s talking about. It’s kind of refreshing to see victims that actually come off as real people, but at the same time, Jarod clearly isn’t winning any humanity awards this year.
Jarod eventually relents, though, after Cheyenne saves his life by accidentally killing Sarah (Melissa Leo) and convincing Jarod that the ATF agents will kill him too. They go out together to negotiate with Keenan, who’s clearly disturbed by all the horror that’s going on around him. It’s pretty obvious that Keenan would have spared to two of them, despite orders to the contrary, except that Harry pops up to shoot both Cheyenne and Jarod in the head. Apparently, he’s gotten over that whole murder thing, having been swayed by Keenan’s arguments. And while I kind of wish more time had been devoted to it, I really like the role reversal here between the two of them.
So, this is about the time in the movie when trumpets start sounding. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Trumpets literally start sounding, and the shoot-out is put on hold for a minute as everybody starts looking around at one another, confused. Pastor Abin Cooper is sure that the Rapture has come, of course, and for a minute there, I really thought that’s where Smith was going. According to Wikipedia, however, I wasn’t entirely wrong: that’s where Smith originally intended on going.
The alternative ending would have gone something like this: the ATF agents would have all died when their chests spontaneously burst. The same would have happened to everybody in the Five Points Church. Keenan would have curled up in a fetal position, while an angel told him to shhhh, and the four horseman of the apocalypse would have appeared. Essentially, the end of days would have begun.
What happens instead: the movie cuts away to a couple of days later, where Keenan is talking to some superiors about what happened. It turns out that the trumpets were actually some college kids or something, trying to freak out the bible-thumpers with a prank. (That seems kind of lame and convenient, as I write it here, but it actually works pretty well with Goodman’s delivery.) When it became obvious that no one was getting raptured that morning, Keenan ignored his previous orders and arrested everybody who was still alive, including Cooper. He gets promoted for his decision—turns out, it won’t be such a PR nightmare, after all, since the government just plans to just lock up the remaining members of the Five Points Church and never let them go to trial.
Keenan tells a little story at the end that, honestly, I’ve kind of already forgotten. But I think the point of it was something like all people are kind of crazy assholes, or rather, have the potential to become crazy assholes. He says that, “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled. But they do even stranger things when they believe.”
The movie ends on Pastor Abin Cooper being locked up in prison. He starts going into his rhetoric, but the other prisoners just yell at him to shut up. It’s a pretty funny little scene, but sort of an odd last shot. I haven’t entirely made up my mind about it.
I kind of like the last five or ten minutes—again, John Goodman’s delivery sells a lot for me—but even though it’s kind of weird, I honestly think the apocalypse twist would have been a better end for this movie. It kind of ties it all together in a way, how most of the people here (who all believe they’re doing the right thing or the thing that needs to be done) aren’t really worthy of God’s redemption. I don’t know, I just think it works better. A lot of alternative endings are alternative for a reason: they completely and totally suck. But I feel a little like Kevin Smith backed off the right ending, here.
Honestly, I’m still trying to get a handle on Red State. I liked the basic plot and all the acting. Despite the lack of sympathetic characters, I found myself invested in the story. I liked how abruptly people died, and I just like how fresh this movie felt.
But the writing—while often grimly funny—was weak in certain areas. In some respects, it felt like a student film that, while interesting, failed to have an entirely cohesive thesis. The characterization could have been better—especially with the villains—and that sermon, man, needed some serious editing.
EXTREMELY TENTATIVE GRADE:
Beliefs are dangerous when you let them interfere with reason. Also . . . I don’t know . . . everybody has the capability of becoming a suckmonkey?