True to my usual modus operandi, I’ve forgotten how I first heard about the movie Red State, although now that I think about it, it might have been on Facebook. The same article that clued me in to its existence also mentioned that it was streaming on Netflix, so naturally, I couldn’t resist.
Red State is a film by Kevin Smith, best known for movies that are significantly more lighthearted than this one. The basic gist of the film is that three horny teenage boys answer a Craigslist-like ad with the hopes of having a night of debauchery with the woman who placed the ad. They drink beers in her trailer while they prepare to get naked, only to find out the beer she offers them is laced with drugs. It’s a set-up and they have been captured by a Fred Phelps like church. The movie has been described as a horror film, but having watched it, I don’t think that it really is. It’s a lot more subtle than that, which is not something I thought I’d be saying about it when I first started watching it yesterday.
Since I only managed to watch the first 30 minutes yesterday before finishing it this morning, I figured it would end up being another installment in the torture porn series a la Saw and Hostel. Sure, the movie is gory, but not as much as it could have been. I will maintain to my dying breath that gore does not equal scary. Gore can add to the scariness factor (see Candyman for a perfect example of this), but most of my favorite horror movies scare more with ideas than blood and guts. Even zombie movies that go too far overboard in the gore department really don’t do it for me – it’s my one criticism of the original Dawn of the Dead. Romero really didn’t need to go THAT gory for it to be scary.
Anyway, Red State succeeds in that it scares with an idea that could very well be plucked out of today’s headlines. The similarities between Cooper’s church and the real-life Westboro Baptists are a little too close for comfort. There’s also a fair amount of parallels drawn with the now almost 20 year old Waco incident, although this is not mentioned directly. For me, what Red State proved is that you don’t need monsters or aliens or other-worldly beings because all too frequently, humans are the scariest things you can put on the screen. We all know that monsters and aliens don’t exist, but how many of us harbor thoughts, however subconscious, that a fundamentalist sect like Cooper’s church could be as threatening as it is in Red State?
This film could have ended up being discarded as exploitative and a piece of propaganda were it not for some very strong performances. It was especially good to see John Goodman in something again. He might be forever typecast as Dan Conner in my mind, but Goodman really is a good actor who plays his role as a senior ATF officer seriously and professionally. Fresh off her Oscar win, Melissa Leo plays the object of the three teenagers’ lust and a particularly crazy member of the church family. Maybe it’s just me or maybe I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be a horny teenager (or perhaps, more accurately, the trashy character that Melissa Leo plays is just not my type) but if I had shown up with my buddies to the trailer and seen her, I would have been all “you know what guys? Let’s just forget it.” Also very good are Michael Parks in the crazy preacher role – again, almost underplayed in many respects – and I was particularly happy to see True Blood‘s Kevin Alejandro as one of Goodman’s ATF guys. Hopefully he’ll continue to get steady work now that his True Blood stint is done.
It was a bit heavy handed in places and at times, and I think the title Red State is needlessly provocative. There were points at which I had a hard time figuring out exactly what story Smith was trying to tell – were the church members sympathetic or not? What were the ATF people ultimately planning? – but I can forgive it because it completely exceeded my expectations by decidedly not devolving into one long set piece with the church members cruelly torturing the three teenage boys for 97 minutes. In the end, it actually was a little bit clever. But what I would give to see the written-but-never-filmed alternate ending. No spoilers here – it’s in the Wikipedia article if you really want to know.
Definitely worth a watch. Catch it on Netflix streaming now before it disappears.