Red State: the most interesting indie film of the year so far?

Kevin Smith’s horror movie Red State will soon be released in the UK. Ryan argues that it’s the most thought provoking indie movie of the year so far…

“Take twelve actors to a house and chop ‘em up.” It’s a filmmaking adage that screenwriting instructor Robert McKee once used to describe Quentin Tarantino’s low-budget debut Reservoir Dogs, and it’s a template that writers and directors have repeatedly used before and since, from George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever.

Kevin Smith may be an established name in filmmaking by now, but his latest feature, Red State, has all the aggression and rough-edged urgency of an attention-hungry debut. It takes the “chop ‘em up” adage and does something genuinely interesting with it – Red State contains elements of the torture horror subgenre, but refuses to conform to them for more than a minute or two. The result is a film that repeatedly switches gear, confounds expectations, and puts both its characters and the audience through a disturbing 88-minute ordeal.

Red State opens as a conventional low-budget horror flick. We’re introduced to three teenagers, Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jared (Kyle Gallner) who are lured via an Internet sex site into the clutches of a murderous Christian fundamentalist group called the Five Points Church.

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The church is led by the growling, wild-eyed minister Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who teaches a perverse form of the gospel that condones the psychological torture and murder of anyone who doesn’t conform to its ideals.

Cooper and his congregation are introduced in a protracted, unbearably tense scene, which lays out their beliefs and horrifying lack of empathy. As Cooper spouts his homophobic, paranoid invective, the congregation nod and cheer along with bovine obedience. And in the background, a vaguely human shape fidgets and shifts beneath a pure white cloth. It’s clear that something awful is likely to happen at any moment, and sure enough, it does.

Had Smith continued on the trajectory suggested by this section of the film, we could have been left with an extremely effective horror film with an obvious religious subtext. Instead, the introduction of Agent Keenan (a brilliantly weathered John Goodman) and his team of trigger-happy ATF henchmen take Red State into altogether different territory.

On a budget of $4 million, Smith has made a sharp, thought provoking movie. While its opening suggests that the entire film will be little more than an anti-Christian fundamentalist rant, it soon mutates into a far more interesting meditation on mindless conformity.

As the film crosses boundaries, from satire, to horror, to action and back, the seams between them are often visible, but the tension is kept assuredly taut through much of the film. It’s only towards the end that Red State stumbles, in a protracted scene that is as dialogue-heavy and distracting as the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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Its low-budget status also means that its action sequences aren’t always as convincing as its scenes of horror – there’s an A-Team-like shoot-out that seems to last for an eternity – and there are times when its underlying, left-leaning messages are bellowed out, when a whisper would have sufficed.

Nevertheless, Red State is full of performances and individual scenes that linger in the mind. Michael Parks is fantastic as the wolf-like Cooper, as is Melissa Leo as his daughter, a trailer-dwelling temptress who lures the film’s three protagonists to their capture.

Smith directs with the rapidity of a filmmaker who relishes the freedom the production enjoyed. Cooper preaches fire and brimstone, and Smith’s writing and camerawork is similarly wild and apocalyptic: chase sequences are filmed in grainy, jerky close-up; sermons are shot from jarring high and low angles; lengthy monologues are abruptly punctured by horrible, creative death. Set almost entirely in little rooms and corridors, the film as a whole is invested with a cloying, dusty sense of claustrophobia.

Like a true guerrilla filmmaker, Smith creates a handful of engaging characters, takes them to a remote house, and puts them through hell. The result is an often pulse-quickening film that lingers in the mind – a film about cruelty, bigotry and intolerance, an independent production about the danger of obeying authority without thinking independently.

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Red State is a marked change of pace, tone and genre for Smith, and the result, while not perfect, deserves to be seen. At the very least, you’ll leave the cinema with a lasting fear of clingfilm.