Red State (18/R, 88 mins)
Director: Kevin Smith
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Burned by the subpar box office and critical mauling of his Bruce Willis-starring action comedy from last year, Cop Out, Kevin Smith has gone back to his edgy, low budget roots with his latest, Red State, which is being actively marketed as something unexpected from the director.
To say it’s his best film in years might be damning with faint praise, like calling each new Woody Allen film a return to form, but the fact remains Smith hasn’t made something this interesting since Dogma over a decade ago.
But though ambitious and bold, it ultimately tries to be too many things. It achieves a fair level of success in its early stages as a backwoods horror, the kind we’ve seen a thousand times, where a bunch of unsuspecting teens get lost in a remote area and are preyed upon by nasty types.
The remote area in question here is Cooper’s Dell, home to the Five Points, a fundamentalist church group given to staging protests at the funerals of gay teenagers, and who are so right wing that even the neo-Nazis distance themselves from them.
Three high school friends have driven to Cooper’s Dell, seemingly by the lure of a girl on the internet. But this was a setup by the Five Points, and the boys end up drugged and held captive, possibly to be sacrificed for their wickedness.
By the time John Goodman turns up as the FBI agent in charge of what has become a hostage situation, some of the good work gets undone when events take a turn into a lengthy gun battle, lacking the sense of space and geography necessary to make a decent action film work.
The boys’ dialogue is foulmouthed and perfunctory, making it difficult for us to warm to them, though the three young actors are fine. But as Abin Cooper, the sect leader, Tarantino regular Michael Parks is sensational, leading his outwardly happy family in prayer as they declare their hatred for sinners and revel in their biblical literalism.
It’s paced at a lick and skilfully constructed, and Smith knows how to create suspense through visual storytelling and uncomfortably oppressive violence. He’s adept at pushing the right buttons, mercilessly lampooning the gun-toting Christian far right, piling on the anger and rage for the audience, albeit with a very easy target and no hint of subtlety.
Which takes us on to the next object of Smith’s ire, and what really drags the film out in its disappointing later stages. As well as having a pop at the real-life events in Waco, the Patriot Act comes under detailed scrutiny, so that what could have a tight and effective horror becomes a political diatribe full of indignation that might have been better saved for another day.