I don’t know a single person who doesn’t loathe Fred Phelps, his family and the so-called “church” he runs over in Topeka, Kansas. Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, and everyone in between, they all look at the people who preside at the Westboro Baptist Church and want to puke. It’s an understandable feeling. With protest signs preaching intense hatred (“God Hates Fags”) and praising the deaths of our soldiers fighting overseas (“Thank God For IED’s”), one can’t help but look at them and feel some type of overwhelming emotion; sadness, anger or even a mix of the two. These horrible people are the inspiration for Kevin Smith’s new non-comedy film, Red State, and despite struggling in certain areas, it’s guaranteed to be a cathartic experience for anybody who despises the Phelps family as much as I do.
The movie follows a family by the name of Cooper, a family not unlike the Phelps clan that thinks homosexuals are the bane of society. However, rather than simply picket with outrageous signs (which are meant to be funny, like “Anal Penetration=Eternal Damnation”), they go one step further. They actually kill those who they find impure. After luring a trio of kids, played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner, to their area with the promise of sex, the family begins a ritualistic sacrifice, but things go wrong and they find themselves in the middle of a battle with ATF forces, led by agent Joseph Kennan (John Goodman).
Kevin Smith is one of those filmmakers that has never impressed behind the camera, but what he lacked in that area, he always made up for with his sharp writing and quick witted dialogue. Despite being his most technically proficient accomplishment to date, his strengths and weaknesses remain the same in Red State. Similar to last year’s Cop Out, this film features a big action scene late in its runtime and Smith struggles to make it exciting. Aside from the fact that it goes on for far too long, its main problem is that nothing really happens. Most characters simply stand around, occasionally pop their head out to take a shot, then retreat back to cover. The franticness of what a cinematic gunfight should entail is all but missing. For much of its length, Smith rests on a shot reverse shot filming pattern, which isn’t exactly the best way to ramp up the thrills.
However, when the film is quiet, Kevin Smith is at his best. It’s only natural for one to wonder if his knack for writing engrossing dialogue would translate over into more serious movies, but I’m happy to report that it does. Though some jokes still linger, Red State is serious in tone. From an early scene where the head of the Cooper family, played marvelously by Michael Parks, gives a hate filled sermon to the closing scene where Kennan justifies his actions in the aftermath of the conflict in front of a government board, the film oozes stylish dialogue. Smith has announced many times that this is his next to last film as a director (his last being Hit Somebody) and many are upset by the news, but I could care less. It’s when he stops writing that we’ve truly lost a talent.
Now, as much as I love seeing the Phelps-esque family in the film get their comeuppance (though I by no means advocate that happening in real life), it can’t help but feel like they’re an easy target. It sometimes feels like Smith is using them to set-up a greater message, but one never really comes around. For instance, the film may be called Red State, but it lacks a political message, aside from the fact that people who associate themselves with right wing politics tend to be more religious, which is hardly a revelation. The only true point it makes is that religious fundamentalism can be dangerous, which is true, but if you really want to see a scary story about religion run rampant, you need look no further than the terrific documentary, Jesus Camp, or even the maddening exposé on the actual Phelps family, Fall From Grace. Both of those offer more substance and insight into the same topic, but as a twisted, sick companion piece, Red State will do.
Red State receives 3/5