Three horny teenagers make plans to meet and have their wicked way with a middle-aged woman they meet via an on-line personal sex ad. Lured to a single trailer park in the woods, the supposed night of a dirty, mini-orgy is nothing but a ruse concocted by a fundamentalist religious group (clearly modelled on the real-life, controversy-baiting, Westboro Baptist Church) and the trio are instead drugged and taken to the nearby compound run by the sect, with the intent of being offered up as sacrificial offering during the epic sermons by the deranged leader of this equally warped collective, Paster Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).
By a strange quirk of events, a team of ATF officers show up outside the pastor’s residence, which sets in motion a chain of messy actions and violence, leading to a decidedly leftfield turn of events.
Foregoing any noticeable middle act, Red State exists as a strange, if intriguing, two-act structural set-up. The first half definitely has a whiff of a Hostel-type set-up, and this is also where the only trace of Smith’s trademark style is apparent, namely in the vulgar back and forth banter between the youths as they swap insults in preparation for their trip. Despite some scenes which point towards the film heading into torture porn territory, thankfully, this never comes to fruition, and we’re presently which something else entirely.
This is a very different Smith to the crude, knockabout frolics of the Jay and Silent Bob, View Askew universe, and the earnest, pop-cultural, hipster indie philosophising. In shedding all of that, Smith has brought a leaner, more exciting cinematic style to his work. Shot on digital (using the Red camera) the film looks fantastic, and there’s a pleasingly visceral energy and fluidity to the hand-held work on display.
The film also acts as a reminder that Smith is fully capable of eliciting fine performances from his cast. You may have already heard the superlatives being directed towards Michael Parks for his role as the seriously twisted pastor, and these are completely justifiable. The 15 minute barnstorming sermon he delivers midway through may have smacked of overindulgence on Smith’s behalf if Parks wasn’t so mesmerising, and similar to his turns in Kill Bill Vol.2 (and the opening to From Dawn Till Dawn, for that matter), it’s impossible to tear your gaze away from the actor (which is further enhanced by Smith’s use of big close-ups throughout). Mellissa Leo delivers a solid turn as Cooper’s daughter and ostensive right-hand woman, and another real surprise here is John Goodman as the beleaguered ATF leader whose ill-conceived actions yield disastrous consequences for both sides.
Unfortunately, Goodman’s introduction is also where the film loses it a little, and turns proceedings into an all-out botched war zone (à la Waco), where the actions of some characters don’t ring true at all as Smith tries too hard to hammer his points across. The climax may prove a little hard to swallow for some (although the strength of Parks’ performance brings a feasibility to what’s happens) but the film has trouble wrapping up things, and sometimes requires too much of a leap in imagination to really get behind Smith’s theories, and suffers from some abrupt shifts in tone (which may be attributed, in part, to a filmmaker working outside of his normal boundaries). Goodman’s last comment on the whole debacle, which strives for a Tommy Lee Jones-esque No Country for Old Men gravitas, is a little ham-fisted and fails to satisfyingly pin down what Smith is reaching for.
Nevertheless, this change of direction is exciting to witness. It may prove to be a tough sell for Smith’s legion of fans (it’s easy to see why, from a commercial point of view, the Weinstein’s passed on it) but it’s still a film which has much to offer, and may even benefit from repeat viewing. The director seems intent on slowly winding down his filmmaking career, and instead focus his creativity towards his burgeoning series of podcasts and a specialist radio network, but on the strength of this flawed, yet fascinating attempt at addressing the misconceptions of extremist behaviour in the US, he should perhaps think twice about folding away that director’s chair.
There seems to be life left in Smith when challenged to deliver something fresh and altogether more grown-up, and even if the end result is uneven, its nice to see a filmmaker jettison the style he’s arguably coasted on for a good decade or so, and attempt to make a genuinely absorbing (semi) real-world thriller, with a delicious streak of dark humour running throughout.