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Movies You Missed 9: Red State

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This week in movies you missed: Kevin Smith takes on the Westboro Baptist Church by making it the horror in a horror movie.

What You Missed

Somewhere in redneck America, three teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) are trying to get laid. They connect online with a much older woman (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) who invites them to her rural trailer with the promise of a simultaneous foursome (don't ask). When they arrive, the unwary horndogs quickly find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Trinity Church, a notorious local sect that waves hate-filled signs at gay and military funerals.

As if that weren't disturbing enough, out of the public eye, the congregation's tastes run to assault rifles, cattle prods, Saran wrap and ball gags. This Hostel-type teenage-nightmare scenario quickly mutates into something else, and then into something else again when the feds, led by John Goodman, storm the compound.

Smith is careful to have a character mention the actual Westboro Baptist Church, so as to make clear that Five Points is only inspired by those zealots. According to one of the WBC members who picketed the Kansas City screening and appear in "Making of" footage, however, he probably shouldn't have bothered: "We don't care."

Why You Missed It

Last year at Sundance, Smith announced that, rather than sell Red State to a big distributor, he would put it in theaters himself. (His entire anti-Hollywood-business-model diatribe is included in the DVD extras and is interesting viewing, even if you find Smith a blowhard.)

Smith took the movie on the road to 15 theaters nationwide, where he earned about $1 million. None of those theaters were in Vermont, nor were we included in September's brief conventional theatrical release.

According to Smith, he's already made back the film's $5 million budget via the California tax rebate, foreign sales and DVD rights — and he did it without spending the usual $20-plus million on slick, misleading marketing. Nice, though perhaps not the most viable model for a filmmaker who's not Kevin Smith.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Every fan of cinematic curiosities and one-of-a-kinds needs to see Red State. That doesn't mean it's actually a good film or does what Smith hoped it would do. But whatever you think of it, you can't deny it's in a category of its own.

Smith was right to distribute the film himself, because it's painful to imagine marketers trying to squeeze Red State into a form that would lure people to theaters in that all-important first weekend. You think the Drive trailer was misleading? Now imagine showing up for a wacky comedy from that Clerks guy and finding a movie with no protagonist, no definite genre, characters dying randomly and bloodily left and right, a long sermon right in the middle, and satire aimed at everyone.

It could be a great film if that satire was fresh. Smith seems to have been aiming for something like Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, where no one, whatever their stand on the central issue, gets off scot-free. The problem is, he's not revealing much we don't already know or haven't already seen on-screen about the profound craziness of the WBC, the stupid horniness of teenagers, the incompetence of rural law enforcement or the dark side of the government's "war on terror."

The movie is bloody, gritty, chaotic and profane, but I didn't find it genuinely subversive — i.e., likely to challenge the presumptions of its audience. With one huge exception: Michael Parks' performance as Abin Cooper (pictured), the looney Five Points pastor.

In that long sermon mentioned above, Parks does something clever and original: He makes the Fred Phelps stand-in appear nice. Charming. Charismatic, but not in the traditional oily, booming TV-evangelist way. Cooper comes off like a sweet old fellow shooting the breeze about salvation and damnation with his family/congregation in between cute asides to his grandchildren. In the background of this folksy family scene is a teenager imprisoned in a cage and begging for his life. That's the twisted stuff of which cult horror is made.

According to Parks (again, in the "Making of"), he didn't base his performance on the actual Phelps; he made it softer, more Southern-accented and more likable. And it's all the more chilling, given the way the character enacts his convictions. I'm a fan of crazy-preacher performances, and this is one of the greats.

But does Smith shed any real light on why people join the WBC? Or how we should respond to their provocations in real life? I didn't find that he did, but I'm interested in what others have to say.

My shoehorned-in "Breaking Bad" reference: Not even shoehorned this time. Anna Gunn (Skyler) and Matt Jones (Badger) appear in the movie as Angarano's mom and a sheriff's deputy, respectively. Glad to see Badger got himself some gainful employment on the other side of the law.

Verdict: If you're going to hate this, you already know. Otherwise, check it out. One caveat: Though Smith calls it a horror movie, don't expect to be scared.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed:

  • Page One: Inside the New York Times. Check out Seth Jarvis' post on the Waterfront Video blog for a list of more great movies about the newspaper business.
  • The Shock Doctrine (Naomi Klein's book about "disaster capitalism" becomes a documentary)
  • Baarìa (Giuseppe Tornatore chronicles life in his Sicilian village)
  • A Better Life (immigrant story from director Chris Weitz)
  • The Last Circus (a Sad Clown and a Happy Clown battle for a woman, with "brutal and bloody violence throughout." Could be Halloween viewing, especially for the clown-phobic.)
  • The Names of Love (A very committed French radical tries to convert right wingers by sleeping with them. It's satire, not soft porn.)
  • Attack on Leningrad (World War II epic with Gabriel Byrne and Mira Sorvino)
  • Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (the acclaimed and controversial doc that played for about a week here)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.) Next week: Attack the Block, which some are calling the most entertaining film of last summer, and certainly the best film of last summer involving an alien invasion.

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