By R. David
Writer/director Kevin Smith has made a career out of crafting irreverent and explicitly honest comedies like “Clerks”, “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” (to cite the best of his works). His latest film, “Red State”, a thriller depicting the evils of fanatical fundamentalism, is his first true stab at topical drama. There is some of his trademark humor, but it is subtle and often pitch black. No hollerings of “Snootchie Bootchies!” here. His ardent supporters, who have long championed Smith as a genius wordsmith who is underrated simply because he works in the comedy milieu and his frank and explicit language is not well-suited for mainstream audiences, will no doubt take “Red State” as an opportunity to suggest he has finally fulfilled the promise of his talent. Smith has written and directed a movie that deals with serious, heavy issues – political, religious, moral – without any of the bodily fluid, sex, and pop culture jokes (particularly “Star Wars” and comic books; his go-to entrainment fetish objects) that are typically the focal points of all his films. For Smith, as well as his fans, the hope is that “Red State” will be a watershed moment for his detractors, as well as a reintroduction to former fans who have written him off as a one trick pony who has spent the later half of his career simply recycling the same shtick. I’m sure Smith would also like “Red State” to stir enough debate to get people talking about all of the hot-button issues the film tackles, as well as talking about Smith as a truly great writer and director.
Smith’s strong suite has always been his dialog. Honest, realistic, refreshing, explicit, shocking, and almost always very funny, it is always the best thing about any of his films (and in the case of some of his worst, the lone saving grace; I’m looking at you “Mallrats”). As a director though, Smith is generally barely adequate. There is something quaint about a guy who is willing to just set up a camera and let the actors and dialog do the heavy lifting, not getting in the way of a scene with a bunch of showy camera moves. This works in a movie like “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy” where the intent of the film is essentially to have the audience eavesdropping on all the different characters’ conversations and relationships. However, in his more ambitious Hollywood fare (“Dogma”, “Jersey Girl”, “Cop Out”), Smith’s utter lack of knowledge – or interest – in how to set up shots and move the camera sticks out like a sore thumb. It may give those films sort of an “indy vibe” (whatever that’s worth), but it makes the production look strictly like amateur hour. Smith would be smart to keep writing, but tap other directors to tackle his more ambitious projects. One of the biggest head-scratchers about “Cop-Out” was the fact that Smith directed the film, but somebody else wrote it. That’s like having Steven Spielberg write a movie for Stephen King to direct.
One of the most fascinating things about “Red State” is that it is clearly the work of Smith at professional crossroads. It was made and distributed outside of the typical Hollywood channels, it is clearly a small budget affair, and there is plenty of profanity and in-your-face dialog. In many ways, this is Smith going back to his roots. But “Red State” is also topical, serious, dark, violent and unsettling. Smith’s films have always been romances at heart. No matter how much conflict his characters may endure, in the end Smith’s films all prove to be feel-good comedies. There is nothing in the look, feel or tone of “Red State” to suggest it was made by the same writer/director who has made an entire career out of irreverent larks like “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”. It has more in common with a 70s grindhouse exercise or a throwback like Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” than anything Smith has ever done.
That’s a pretty big departure, especially for a guy with as fervent and loyal a fanbase as Smith. But the gamble pays off. “Red State”, besides being a breath of fresh air for Smith, is a pretty ambitious, effective and well-made movie by any measure. While it starts out a bit obvious and heavy-handed and sporting some tedious dialog, “Red State eventually settles into a nicely claustrophobic groove, with Smith successfully delivering an issue movie that also functions as a wickedly entertaining thriller. For a film all about religious and political soap-boxing, the film never feels too preachy or over-sold.
Things begin with three small-town teens who, anxious to loose their virginity, answer an on-line ad promising them a four-way with an aging trailer park prostitute (Melissa Leo). She tells them she wants them all to be at least two beers deep before she will be comfortable letting them all take a run at her. They are only too happy to oblige her request. The beer is drugged though, and the next thing the kids know they’re waking up caged and bounded and gagged in the 5-Points church, a cultish compound run by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Cooper is a fire-and brimstone preacher who makes the gay-hating, rapture-welcoming Fred Phelps clan in Alabama look like the Mormons. Rather than simply protest the evils of homosexuality and fornication, Cooper and his followers have decided to act as the hammer of God and start dolling out death sentences. They are also stockpiling automatic weapons, preparing for the day when they will unleash God’s vengeance on the masses.
Parks, a Tarantino favorite, is terrific as Cooper. Audiences who recall him from the “Kill Bill” films and “From Dusk Till Dawn” know just how creepy and effective his soft, raspy, menacing vocal inclinations can be. Like many of the most frightening movie villains, Parks exudes a eerie calm, suggesting he has no emotional attachment, doubt or fear to appeal to. John Goodman, playing an ATF agent tracking Cooper, is nearly as good in a performance that requires the exact opposite approach. He is all emotion. His character is rarely calm, always shouting, and constantly doubting and questioning his motivations and the tasks he is asked to carry out by his superiors. The two men meet in a standoff outside the Five Points compound and here Smith adds yet another layer of commentary as the situation recalls the Waco, Texas Branch Dividians debacle of 20 years ago.
That’s the basic outline of “Red State’s” premise, but as anyone who is a fan of a particular screenwriter knows, the basic beats of the plot are really less interesting than the commentary, dialog, and situations that occur along the way. Smith the writer does not disappoint here. Though there are times where he is perhaps being too self-indulgent (he let’s Parks go through a full-on sermon in one scene, and though it’s presumably a tactic to build suspense as the three boys’ lives hang in the balance, it goes on far too long; also the film could have nixed the on-the-nose commentary about the Five Pointers from the high school class and their teacher near the beginning of the film), he somehow keeps all the balls he’s juggling in the air; tackling organized religion, homophobia, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and dangers of the media and the government in times of crisis all with equal gusto. Smith doesn’t short change any of his issues, but he doesn’t get tangled up in them either. The film is surprisingly quite deftly written and very straightforward for a movie dealing with issues that are anything but. And of course there is a lot of clever and often funny dialog (“Take the children outside, it’s about to get mighty grown-up in here.”).
The real surprise in ‘Red State” though is Smith the director. The movie not only looks like it was shot by a guy with some vision for once, but it actually has a distinctive look and a vibe going for it. It may not be one that Smith has invented – you’ll recognize it’s grungy, grimy, almost docudrama-like shooting style from other thrillers – but it works as a breath of fresh air for one of his films. It is also completely effective here and perfectly suited to the material. The look of the film, like the subtle nuances in Parks voice, is one of the effects that makes it so unsettling, beyond any of the shock and awe moments (of which there are a few).
“Red State” isn’t perfect. Smith overplays his hand and overreaches in various ways. But the movie has such an energy and establishes an almost perfect tone and pace (after a slightly rocky start) that it’s hard not to become completely enraptured by it. And of course there is the fact that this is not only the best Kevin Smith movie in a long time, but the most unique film he has ever made and certainly his best work behind the camera.
He might be 20 years into his career, but Kevin Smith is a director to keep your eye on.
3 and a half stars out of 4.