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Red State (Blu-ray Review)

26 Oct, 2011 By: John Latchem

Box Office $1.1 million
$27.98 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
‘R’ for strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity and pervasive language.
Stars Michael Parks, John Goodman, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Kerry Bishé, Melissa Leo, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Root, Kevin Pollak.

Kevin Smith’s Red State represents a departure for the cult-favorite indie director, in that he’s actually touching on some real-world issues.

Now in his 40s, Smith seems to be putting some of the tropes of youth behind him. Gone are the fart jokes and plots about good-natured buddies just hanging out. Red State finds a more-mature Smith at his most Coen-esque with an unpredictable three-act anthology about sex, religion and politics in modern America.

The first part of the movie is more typically Smith, as three horny high-schoolers use an online dating site to set up a sexual rendezvous with an older lady who lives in a trailer. As she gets them drunk off cheap beer, they pass out and awake as prisoners during a sermon at the compound of the 5 Corners Trinity Church, a fundamentalist family modeled after the Westboro wackos who protest soldiers’ funerals and gay causes (and also this movie, after learning what Smith was up to, as seen in the extras).

Michael Parks plays their leader, Abin Cooper, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who’d give Fred Phelps a run for his money on the crazy meter. Parks is scary-good in this central role, but the casting is exemplary throughout.

Smith gives us characters to follow only to quickly kill them off, moving onto a new set of players. The lack of a solid central character makes it more difficult to have an emotional investment in the story beyond a visceral reaction to surface details, until about halfway through when the film settles into a standoff between the fundamentalists and a put-upon ATF agent played by John Goodman.

It’s easy enough to despise the preacher, but it’s not easy to root for the authorities, either, once the order comes in to classify the family as a group of “domestic terrorists” and wipe out the compound, leaving no survivors (including children) who might generate sympathy for their cause. There’s a certain iconoclasm involved when Betty Aberlin from “Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood” stands at a window firing a machine gun at federal agents.

This talky hour-and-a-half of unpleasantness isn’t the easiest movie to sit through, but it nags at you afterward and probably requires multiple viewings to absorb everything Smith is trying to convey, as long is its heavy-handedness doesn’t turn viewers off from the outset. Smith has billed this as a horror movie, but it’s more about the horror of how certain ideas and doctrines can be corrupted and subverted by zealots.

In many ways this is a film about how crusaders can become the very thing they are warning against. Cooper denigrates homosexuals by saying they “won’t stop singing of [their] own volition” while he spends most of the movie singing about Jesus. Government officials malign Cooper for passing judgment on others and enforcing his own interpretation of scripture, while at the same time ignoring due process and ordering the executions of his followers.

I wish there were a true commentary with Smith actually discussing the themes of the film as he saw them, but instead we have to sift through bits and pieces as they are discussed throughout the bonus material.

The most notable extras are a 45-minute making-of featurette and three extended sequences with introductions by Smith, who reveals his primary motivation for making the movie was to work with Parks after seeing him as a lawman in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Also included are an extended interview with Parks, Smith’s speech about the film at the Sundance Film Festival, and a collection of podcasts of Q&As from screenings held during Smith’s “Red State of the Union” tour to promote the movie, which he distributed theatrically himself.

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