My favourite film of 2011
The tagline of the film is “three boys go into the woods to find sex and find God.” Jarod (Kyle Gallner), while surfing a sex hook-up website is propositioned by an older woman Sara (Melissa Leo) to participate in 3on1 group sex and convinces his friends Travis (Michael Angarano) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) to participate. During their initial awkward interaction with Sara they are drugged and lead to the ‘Five Points Trinity Church’ where Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his flock await to force them to pay for their perceived sin.
The performances are nothing short of exquisite. The relationship between the boys was authentic, realistic and had a short hand/unspoken established hierarchy that explained and reinforced their behaviour throughout the film. Individually they were required to take themselves to terrifying places and each time they delivered and dragged the audience members to the depths of their fear (special mention to Kyle in the cage, which made my heart audibly beat).
The spellbinding Michael Parks is Abin Cooper. His mesmerizing performance doesn’t have him acting in an overtly terrifying or evil manner; he delivers a subtle and nuanced performance to authentically portray belief. Parks chills, as he is able to navigate between suggesting a murderous cleanse of all the ‘unholy’ to asking his youngest grandson to flex his muscles and show him the young boy’s impression of Popeye. The family that supports him unyieldingly makes their belief all the more terrifying. Abin’s daughter Sara (Oscar Winner Melissa Leo) and her husband Caleb (Ralph Garman) are profoundly great for their contrasting supporting styles. Leo’s performance was loaded with a backstory where I felt myself imagining her being brainwashed as a child. Sara is loyal, sweet and she illustrates that her father’s scriptures are an opiate to her. Garman is nothing short of chilling as ‘the blunt instrument’ Caleb – so much so that despite me associating him with his comedic Babble-On persona – my suspension of disbelief was maintained throughout. All of the believer’s silent and willing participation was unsettling but Kerry Bishé’s Cheyenne deserves a special mention for being able to transition between an unquestioning support to an empathetic and repentant victim – she matched the intensity of Kyle and Ms Leo (we’re looking at an impressive troupe of young actors that you should be hearing more from in the future).
The next integral performers in this piece are the ATF Agents (John Goodman & Kevin Pollak) and Town Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root). Wynan instigates a search at Cooper’s Dell (the site of Cooper’s Church) and Agent’s Keenan (Goodman) & Brooks (Pollak) and their team are sent to exercise the warrant. Goodman is convincing as the frank Agent Keenan who smells danger in the Cooper case and has to exercise the orders of his (initially anonymous) superiors. He navigates around the action believably and becomes the audiences’ belated protagonist. A huge amount of credit to Smith’s performance direction, which by virtue of his confessed minimalism, allowed the actors to rely on their instinctual reactions that were spot on.
The film looks outstanding. It is fast paced and the audience is never static for too long – even during the long Cooper homily – the camera sways, paces and edges uncomfortably close to Parks’ terrifyingly brilliant Cooper. Dave Klein’s gritty cinematography is evident immediately as Jarod (Gallner) rouses from his drug induced sleep hog-tied and imprisoned in a cage. The glimpses of him in his cage are claustrophobic and, like the running scenes in the film (especially Travis’), intensify the viewing experience because in every case you’re uncomfortably close. The action scenes are also phenomenally constructed and are brutal and frank in their presentation and punctuation. This is reinforced by the sound design (which is minimal) that is so affective for the audience because the sound that is in the film, especially the gunfire, is deafening when it occurs.
Smith repositions fears of religious fundamentalists for American audiences back into the domestic sphere. The fear that Smith is able to conjure with this artwork is the plausibility for a Christian fundamentalist group in the U.S.A to be armed and mobilise. It challenges the right to free ‘hate’ speech and fleetingly tries to warn the boys (via Deborah Aquila’s Mrs. Vasquez) of passive acceptance of such institutions. The film isn’t judgemental toward sex and sexuality, instead challenging conservative Christian notions of a ‘natural moral’ coupling. And finally it illuminates and satirises the role of government and law enforcement in being able to navigate issues of fundamental and hate fuelling religious groups, until they become classified as terrorists, at which time those groups/individuals lose ALL rights (via the Patriot Act).
Red State resonates, and I’ll be going back to Cooper’s Dell for another sermon. I was blessed with the opportunity to ask the film-maker Kevin Smith a question prior to the film; “What’s it like having your ace up your sleeve?” His answer…
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.