This article is spoiler-free, but if you’d prefer to see Red State knowing absolutely nothing about it, proceed with caution.
Ahead of its UK release this Friday, Red State is already proving to be a divisive film. It’s perplexed audiences and critics in such a way that most either love it or hate it. In fact, judging by comments made on writer-director Kevin Smith’s own Twitter feed, it’s intended to perplex. It’s also a hundred million miles from anything we’ve seen from “that Clerks guy” in the past
It’s a horror film, and the bulk of the action takes place in middle-America. Specifically, it takes place in Cooper’s Dell, which is home to the fictional Five Points Trinity Church. When three high-schoolers go out into the woods looking for sex, they fall foul of the Christian extremists therein, and set a chain of hideous events in motion. Jay and Silent Bob are nowhere to be seen, and this is not a movie for the faint of heart.
Even the cast credits at the end of the movie go so far as to divide the cast into the three main sections of the narrative in which they appear. They’re sub-headed as “Sex”, “Religion” and “Politics” – three topics you’re not supposed to broach in polite discussion. Like most of Smith’s previous work, Red State is anything but polite.
For such a divisive film, the one thing that seems to unite the critics, the audience, Smith’s loyal fans and even his detractors, is that the cast of Red State is magnificent. Even the most negative reviews have, at the very least, included a reluctant compliment or two for the performances on show here.
For a $4 million budget, some of the cast took a lower salary in return for their work on the film. Last month, Smith told GQ, “If I told you what we paid [John] Goodman, dude, you’d hang up the phone, find me and kick me in the balls while yelling, ‘He’s a treasure! An American treasure, you fat prick!’”
Perhaps that’s true, but the mighty Goodman is on top form all the same. And alongside one American treasure, you have Michael Parks, perhaps best known for his recurring role as Sheriff Earl McGraw in the films of Rodriguez and Tarantino, and Melissa Leo, right off the back of winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year, for her role as Alice Ward in The Fighter.
But there’s an argument to be made that Red State works as a lean, mean and dramatic horror movie as a result of the whole cast. Every character has some crucial role to play in the escalating circumstances that transpire at Cooper’s Dell. Smith’s sub-categories are as good as any, so let’s look at the stellar performances on show in Red State.
While some of Kevin Smith’s best movies might occasionally have focused on adults in arrested development, I struggle to remember a time in which he’s actually written high-schoolers. At the beginning of Red State, however, we find three characters who appear to be our heroes.
Kyle Gallner plays Jarod, Michael Angarano plays Travis and Nicholas Braun plays Billy-Ray. In the grand scheme of things, the high-schoolers are not our protagonists. Hell, these character types – “backwards kids” who’ve been shielded from Internet porn sites and yet still wind up trying to hook up online – are usually dead before the title card. That’s not the case in Red State, and it’s to the credit of the actors that the characters even evolve beyond that over the course of the film.
Angarano and Braun actually come from the Disney stable, and previously starred together in the underrated superhero comedy, Sky High. Their performances in Red State are revelatory, opening with the teenage camaraderie that must be second nature to them by now, and then running the emotional gauntlet from there on out.
Gallner is more of a horror veteran, having picked up prominent roles in The Haunting In Connecticut, Jennifer’s Body and the execrable remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street. Perhaps his genre experience is why he was cast as Jarod, who is put through the wringer in such a way that allows Gallner to show off a finely-honed, shit-scared performance, and the best we’ve yet seen from him.
Also of note in the “Sex” part of the cast is Stephen Root, who has a small but pivotal role as a self-hating homosexual policeman, Sheriff Wynan. You might not easily remember his name, but Root is one of those recognisable character actors who’s very good at eliciting sympathy in his characters. It’s smart casting, and Root capably embodies Wynan’s emotional turmoil, and his particular beef with the film’s main villains.
The main “Sex” scenes come earliest in the film though. And the three teen characters are at least maladjusted enough that they’re willing to go in the woods on the promise of a foursome with a hot older woman they’ve never met, without being weird or nerdy. You don’t have to be a total Krelboyne to not get laid in high-school, and they each play it just right – more unworldly than particularly uncool.
Additionally, their close-knit friendship is established well enough by their performances that you can also credit their decision to travel miles for the glamour of a sex sandwich that, apparently unbeknownst to them, would contain a little too much sausage if fulfilled.
Of course, it transpires that a mostly-male ménage à quatre is the least of their problems.
The Five Points Trinity Church is an unabashedly terrifying satire of the Westboro Baptist Church, who are infamous for picketing funerals and telling anyone in earshot how God hates any of their bugbears of the moment. They’re notable for their anti-gay stance, and in Smith’s tirade against right-wing bigotry, the Five Pointers are also gun nuts, who dish out what they believe to be God’s judgement against homosexuals as part of their private services.
The head and patriarch of the church is Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks. He’s more than an analog of WBC pastor Fred Phelps, and Parks has rightly been lionised for his astonishing performance. His power is obvious amongst the Five Pointers, but he’s also deeply compelling in the way that he makes blistering homophobic invective sound perfectly homespun. The character really believes he’s doing what’s right by God.
Elsewhere amongst his devoted family, Melissa Leo plays Cooper’s daughter, Sara. It’s a powerful display that often seems to lapse into religious histrionics, but Leo brings the kind of gravitas that really leaves you rattled when her character gets pissed off.
Ralph Garman, one of Smith’s co-hosts on his Smodcast podcast network, has a less showy role as Caleb, Sara’s mute thug of a husband. The only clue as to his back-story is a scar on his neck, and he’s already popular enough that some of Garman’s fans are calling his character “The Boba Fett of Red State.”
On such a low-budget film, it’s not uncommon for friends and family of the cast and crew to round out the supporting players. Jennifer Schwalbach continues a line of cameos in her husband’s movies as Esther, and her on-screen spouse, Mordechai, is Michael Parks’ own son, James.
Even alongside the calibre of Parks and Leo, the stand-out is probably Kerry Bishé, perhaps best known as Lucy in the distended final season of Scrubs, who plays Sara and Caleb’s daughter Cheyenne. As the film goes on, she has the hardest role of anybody in the cast, playing the character with the best hope of redemption, while still holding true to the beliefs she’s been spoon-fed by her nutty family since birth.
The Five Points Trinity Church is ably represented by the superb cast. They’re hateful bastards, sure, but they’re not cartoon villains. That’s why Red State becomes all the more complicated with the arrival of “Politics”.
There’s one major character credited in this section of the film, and that’s Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman. Goodman arrives midway through the film in much the same way as Marge Gunderson turns up late in Fargo, awoken by an early morning phone call, and yet turns out to be the main character of the film.
Goodman, something of a Coen brothers regular himself, is phenomenal in the role. After Cheyenne, he’s the character who has the biggest moral conflict in the whole film, when the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is alerted to a disturbance in Cooper’s Dell. Keenan leads a team of agents to the ranch, and, quite simply, all hell breaks loose.
Keenan is the wry, rational centre of Red State and he’s essentially good-hearted, but it’s not a film that’s ever so simple as to say that makes him good, right or even correct in the things that he does and the decisions that he makes. If anything, his arrival makes a bad situation even worse. This later creates a compelling conflict between Harry, a tactical agent played by Kevin Alejandro, and Keenan, based on the finer points of simply following orders.
It’s not the kind of role you usually see John Goodman play, but golly, he’s good. Many reviewers who disliked Red State have criticised the ending, which is quintessential Kevin Smith, but then used their opinion as a licence to tell you what happens at the end. We won’t be spoiling anything here, but it can be argued that the ending works completely, because it has an actor as compulsively watchable as John Goodman to take us through it.
Another notable player in this part of the film is Kevin Pollak, whose role as Keenan’s second-in-command is brief but, for a number of reasons, very memorable. The political aspect of Red State brings up questions about the right to freedom of speech and the fallibility of government alongside an already thought-provoking subject.
And in these scenes, the film rests heavily on John Goodman’s very capable talents. But hey, it’s apparently something of a Marmite film. Your judgement of whether or not it pays off in the end is entirely subjective. But it’s certainly something that’s worth watching for the performances alone, even without the added incentive of Kevin Smith the director entirely reinventing himself.
You’ve never seen Smith direct a film like this. With shoot-outs, chase sequences and a genuinely dark heart pulsing at the centre, it’s a world away from the static shooting of the View Askewniverse. But the attraction there is Smith’s writing, which is uncharacteristically functional in parts of Red State.
We’ve seen Smith wrangle with religion in his writing before, with Dogma. The Catholic League protested that film, and the Westboro Baptist Church (inevitably) protested this one. The two films clearly aren’t in continuity with one another, but they would still make a fascinating double bill. While Dogma has a wordy script and an all-star cast, Red State is symptomatic of the filmmaker trusting his cast’s instincts.
While you can appreciate the screenwriting talents of Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin, there’s a tendency for many of their characters to talk in one unified voice, rather than sounding distinctive, and Smith has occasionally fallen into that trap too. There’s a staggering amount of exposition and pontification in Dogma‘s dialogue, but the functional aspect of Red State allows it to move faster, and lets the actors embellish their characters more independently.
You won’t see many other $4 million movies with a cast this strong. They’re not mega-stars, but there’s just the right combination of character actors, rising stars and yes, one genuine American treasure, to make the performances of Red State the biggest selling point of a movie that still has more to offer.