Horrorthon '11: Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)

As with many cinephile children of the '80s and '90s, Kevin Smith's accessible, interconnected library of honestly crude and winningly relatable dialogue-centric comedies played a key role in breaking the ice of my true film passion. The often headline-making auteur's first non-comedy - rebelliously tagged "An Unlikely Film from that Kevin Smith" in the vein of Melvin Van Peebles' "Rated X by an All-White Jury" for the seminal "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and Smith's own recent "[We] made a movie so titillating that we can only show you this [stick figure drawing]" from the unfortunate "Zack & Miri Make a Porno" - is this year's tense digital production "Red State", the potentially trailblazing release controversy of which has been widely chronicled from a rights auction sham at Sundance that Smith, probably accurately, describes as his "Jerry Maguire" moment to a unique nationwide screening tour including Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Cinema. With a plot that could be described in part as "Hostel" in a church with sermon in place of physical torture, the film charts a harrowing day in which a cultish Christian compound is caught luring and abducting sacrilegious locals with the intention of "sending them to Satan" - carrying out their disturbed interpretation of God's work in what comes to carry blatant shades of the February 28, 1993 firefight at David Koresh's Davidian Branch in Waco, Texas. Is it an inspired deviation for the filmmaker I loved for many years and have, more recently, fought against progressively declining quality and a publicly souring attitude to continue loving, or is it simply a feeble stunt?

The most memorable works of horror pervert apparently harmless everyday elements, keeping us on edge in our own homes well after the fact. Stephen King has proven himself most prominent in this regard, having perhaps most notably rendered the private sanctity of our bathrooms dauntingly sinister with "It" and "Dreamcatcher". Places of religious worship, though heroically portrayed in many examples such as almost any Universal or Hammer "Dracula" picture, have also seen their share of corruption in films like "The Devil's Rain" (reviewed for last year's Horrorthon). In these cases the antagonists are, more often than not, of more overtly sinister creeds representative of evil itself. In "Red State", the believers demonized - and viewed as domestic terrorists - are extreme versions of Christianity distinctly akin to those of such notorious, Qur'ran-burning, publicity-seeking establishments as Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and Terry Jones' Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Granted, these are warped examples of the Christian faith, but the simple fact of that faith being the villainy's root boldly stands out to make subscribers and agnostics tremble in certain company.

Though establishment-lite outside brief social rumblings and news coverage of anti-homosexual picketing before launching in to appropriately long-winded yet breezy discourse explanatory of the family-based compound's motives, "Red State" doesn't necessarily rely on current event knowledge to embellish possible fears that a life lived too deep within the myopic insulation of Christianity can lead to twisted mentalities capable of, as Smith's writing puts it, "the strangest things". Nevertheless, with the Church having become debauched in the public eye, it is easy to buy the depicted idea of utterly devout servitude as rote, seductive and generally outdated.

Smith stylistically branched out to an extent with his questionably selected director-for-hire work on "Cop Out", which played out far less like any prior Smith film in which cinematography takes a firm backseat and more like a misguided Edgar Wright imitation. The end result of "Cop Out" aside, Smith at least showed that after almost two decades in cinema he is capable of adapting to different approaches. "Red State" offers quite possibly the man's most interesting aesthetic yet through a fittingly frantic digital lens and dark or washed-out subjects. The proceedings are arguably more action-oriented in terms of genre definition, what with the heavy artillery that eventually enters scope, but in spite of that and the obvious slant against the deluded, it's all genuinely horrific from an objective perspective on humanity in general.

The fantastic Michael Parks creates still another biting character to love - or love to hate, rather - in pied piper Pastor Abin Cooper. Through comfortably assured posturing and the disagreeably eloquent justification his tongue spins he is believably bitter toward what he perceives as a truly wicked world. Melissa Leo, illustrating further she's the performing cornerstone of homely, angry housewives, is staggeringly triumphant as she disappears in to one of the most focal church members - one edgily conflicted between reluctant piety and desperately violent outbursts and calmly sedated by any shallow whisper merely involving the words "Christian" or "God". Kerry Bishé portrays the lone dissenter in an emotional turn that finally proves she can in fact act after having been handed the awkward deal of taking on the shafted lead in the doomed ninth season incarnation of "Scrubs". John Goodman is John Goodman, which is nary a negative and, man, is Stephen Root in everything these days, or what?

"Red State" is rattling to the point that your core will quiver, your sweat will pour and chills will run over your goosebumps' goosebumps, particularly when it appears to be heading down an unquestionably startling path that threatens unflinchingly to alter its entire playing field. Honestly, while the epilogical path instead taken is sensibly smooth, befitting of the film's platform and cathartically rewarding through a punctuative exclamation, it is of considerable disappointment the originally scripted finale was not realized - or at the very least alluded to sans a rational "dumb luck" explanation - as it is so alarmingly built up to.

All told, "Red State" is Kevin Smith's excellent return to form; or, more felicitously, his return to deserved artistic prolificity via a whole new form.