Writer/director Kevin Smith (Mallrats, Chasing Amy) is no stranger to controversy. His 1999 film Dogma received more than 300,000 pieces of hate mail following its release, along with a number of deaths threats that he gleefully published online. Later, in 2005, Smith remarked he'd been mulling over a sequel to Dogma ever since the attacks of 9/11, and so it was that Red State finally emerged.
It's casually referred to as a 'horror movie', but that's not quite right. In fact, Red State feels a bit like a movie grappling with an identity crisis: it's not gruesome enough to qualify as horror, just as it's neither exclusively funny enough to be comedy nor 'action-y' enough to tempt the Michael Bay crowd, yet it has more than enough of each to remain both gripping and entertaining throughout.
The film is unusual for a number of other reasons, too, not in the least because there's no central protagonist for the audience to follow. Instead, it offers a story in three acts, each of which addresses one of the movie's key themes: sex, religion and politics. First up come the three horny, misguided teenagers Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), lured to a remote trailer park under the pretense of group sex with an older woman they met online (played to terrifying perfection by Melissa Leo). It feels like a standard setup for a standard horror flick, and when the boys end up drugged, bound and caged for the purposes of a religious execution, Red State seems squarely set on the path to torture porn.
Thankfully, though, Smith instead uses the second act to make mockery of religious zealots who warp and misconstrue holy texts for their own perverse purposes. The boys find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church a militant version of the real-life Westboro Baptist nutjobs in the United States who (amongst other things) conduct the impossibly offensive protests outside the funerals of gays, atheists and US soldiers. Michael Parks in particular offers a phenomenal performance as the sect's charismatic leader Abin Cooper, and his 15-minute diatribe on the "ills of homosexuality" is as mesmerising as it is exasperating.
Finally, the film turns to politics (and bullet-frenzied action) as the church finds itself besieged by an army of heavily armed ATF agents led by John Goodman. The allusions to the disastrous 1993 siege of David Koresh's Branch Davidians cult are unmistakable, and Smith throws subtlety to the wind with his harsh recrimination of both Christian fundamentalism and the heavily unregulated powers prescribed by the US Patriot Act.
Overall, Red State delivers a captivating story unlike most of what finds its way to screens these days. It's a tense, unnerving, infuriating and even amusing film that pulls no punches when it comes to Smith's passionate sentiments regarding all things sex, religion and politics.
Red State will screen at Popcorn Taxi on Wednesday, October 12 with a special introduction and post-screening analysis by Kevin Smith. It opens nationally on October 13.