Because it's quite good.
This movie employs a rather brilliant take on the classic three-act structure. Each act could be its own unique movie. We start with a tried-and-true teen horror movie set-up. Three teenage boys (led by Kyle Gallner, who many of you might know as Cassidy or "Beaver" from Veronica Mars) find this prostitution website, where women (and probably men, too) post naked pictures of themselves (with the face obscured) and name their price for some you-know-what. The boys can't really take a trip to New York or Los Angeles, where most of these girls are from, but there's one woman from a small town nearby. One of the boys has been emailing with her and she's agreed to "do" them all at once. The kids have some thoughts about the fact that she's 38, but they decide to go for it. They get to the woman's home (a trailer) and drink some warm-up beers, but they've clearly been drugged and before they can get their clothes off, they're unconscious.
The ringleader wakes up in a cage to find that he's part of an "object lesson" in a church service and now we're in a "captured by lunatics" horror movie (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Behind the pulpit is Reverend Abin Cooper (played by the amazing Michael Parks, whose praises I have sung before), and we're treated to a roughly fifteen-minute real-time sermon about how godless the world is and how all the sinners are going to hell, especially the gays, who are the agents of the devil himself here on earth, says Cooper. It should be noted that we've heard this man's name and seen his face before this scene. He and his family are seen protesting outside the funeral of a murdered gay man (a la Westboro and the Phelps family), and he's the topic of a brief conversation in our doomed trio's history class. Apparently, Cooper and his family are so bonkers that even a neo-Nazi group has distanced themselves from them. We also hear later on that he and his "Five Points" church are worse than the Westboro lot, who are admittedly annoying but at least don't carry guns like the Cooper clan. The Five Points congregation consists entirely of family - around twenty-five people in all, including some small children - and that for this reason it has been impossible for the FBI to do any undercover infiltration.
I wondered how the people around me felt about sitting through the sermon. Fifteen minutes is about right (maybe a bit shorter) time frame for most of the sermons I've heard in my lifetime, having gone to church regularly for most of that time. Smith, having been raised Catholic, is probably drawing from similar experience. I'd say a congregation like this is used to much longer sermons, but you can only spend so much time with this kind of thing in a movie, especially when the content is so abhorrent. It was frankly chilling for me to watch the congregation in a scene - again, content MOST CERTAINLY aside - that I have experienced many, many times in my life. All the nodding and "amen"s and things that I have always felt were (or at least could be) meaningful expressions of real worship ... to see them distorted like this and used as an earnest response to what is such a blatant perversion of God's word was, to me, the most frightening part of the film. And then, of course, a woman takes the kiddoes out to have their lessons because, as Cooper says, "it's about to get grown-up in here." I just love it when people use that word and "adult" to describe things that really, really aren't.
The first "grown-up" object lesson involves a gay man who has been plastic-wrapped to a big cross and gagged (whaddup, blasphemy!) before being shot in the top of the head with a tricked-out handgun. The ringleader's two buddies, meanwhile, manage to cut themselves free and try to escape. Emphasis on the word "try." It is here that the film morphs into its third incarnation - a hostage scenario and feds-to-the-rescue climax. What was supposed to be a simple in-and-out mission for a handful of BATF agents has become the Waco Siege of 1993, with Cooper and his crew completely unconcerned about dying, because dying just means they get to go to heaven (um, don't count your chickens, dudes). The conflict ends more peaceably than it should, mostly thanks to a mysterious loud noise that the Coopers think is the Trumpet of the Lord announcing the return of Christ. The agent in charge (played by John Goodman) brings the remaining family members in and explains the rest of the story, including his decision to disobey direct orders, to his superiors.
I don't know what this film's detractors were expecting, or if they were just so disgusted at the Sundance media circus that they were prejudiced against the film itself, but I think it's a dang fine movie. Something you absolutely would not expect from Kevin Smith, but which just as absolutely fits his style, especially with regard to writing. Acting, across the board, is great, even from the guys playing the teenage victims (the kinds of characters that sadly do not get parts as good as these written for them - I don't mean they're all DeNiro in Taxi Driver, but for horror movie victims, they're surprisingly layered). Goodman is wonderful in his role, but the real standouts are Michael Parks and (Oscar-winner) Melissa Leo. Leo's character is the one who lures the boys in the first place, and it's horrifying to see her calmly sitting next to her husband in church, like she was just doing God's will by drugging those kids and tying them up. Parks, though, is an absolute revelation (*rimshot*) as the patriarch and preacher. I've been a fan of his since for several years now, and he's a great "character actor" who doesn't often get a lot to do in the films he's in. It's great to see him step up and be the lead here.
There's a part of me that's sad that here's yet another movie where religious people (the only religious people in the story, in fact) are crazy murdering lunatics. On the other hand, it makes me even sadder that people like this really do exist. There's not much in the world that's more disgusting than a group of so-called Christians standing outside a funeral and basically saying "nah-nah-nee-boo-boo" to a dead person that they clearly couldn't have cared less about trying to reach.