DVD Review: Maybe the biggest surprise of the film season is Kevin Smith’s brutal and raw horror-exploitation grindhouse flick. Angry and self-assured, Red State’s like nothing we’ve seen before from the (usually comic) filmmaker, and that’s a very exciting thing.
Last year the indie filmmaker tried to make a bigger, more mainstream movie with Cop Out. It tanked, and Smith took his frustration out first on critics (banning them from ever advance screening his films again), and later in the press blamed its star Bruce Willis.
He then announced his impending retirement, saying he’d make a few more films then hang up his camera. No one took Smith all that seriously, but what’s sadder is that fans like me, tired of the stunts and tantrums, didn’t really care.
I’ve always liked Smith’s sloppily audacious, often slapdash and silly filmmaking. (Yep, even Jersey Girl and Clerks II.) I admired his recklessly earnest attitude and his big heart. And as a lover of goofball toilet humor, I always laughed. (Yep, even at Cop Out.)
But it hasn’t been easy to remain a Kevin Smith defender this past decade—it’s increasingly felt like the filmmaker not only wasn’t fulfilling his potential, but had stopped trying. Smith’s always had his loyal fans, but you could feel his growing frustration at being an indie novelty act, and it often felt like he put more effort into his speaking engagements and podcasts than his movies.
The R-rated Red State is Smith’s first horror-sploitation movie—a brutal cultural commentary on religious extremism. But when it came time to sell the completed film at Sundance last winter, Smith instead bought it from himself for a dollar. Without a national theatrical release, it didn’t seem like Red State was going to be anything other than a sad, trickle-down misfire on the way to the end.
Except it’s not. At all. Red State is a dang revelation.
No, not the Apocalyptic sort yearned for by the film’s religious-fanatic characters. It’s the revelation of a filmmaker finally getting fed up enough to carelessly throw away every trick in his bag, every crutch in his closet. Red State is dark and enraged, violent and vicious. It’s mean and murky and mostly sans humor.
And not a single scene, shot, or frame of Red State looks, sounds, or feels like a “Kevin Smith” movie. A Tarantino movie, absolutely. But not a Kevin Smith movie.
The story hinges on an extended family of hard-core evangelical Christians, patterned after Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church’s repulsive, homophobic “God Hates…” demonstrations at military and celebrity funerals.
Smith gives his fictional religious nuts a more militant, murderous edge. Led by patriarch Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the group secretly entraps and executes “sinners” on their compound—until they draw the attention of the ATF and a violent Waco-like stand off begins.
The first half of Red State plays like a horror film—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with scripture-quoting instead of cannibalism. In the second half, John Goodman arrives on the scene as a weary ATF agent, and the rest takes place against a non-stop hail of gunfire.
Parks—best known for his enjoyable but one-note work as lawman Earl McGraw in Tarantino’s From Dusk Til Dawn, Deathproof, and Kill Bill—shows startling complexity and authenticity under his flinty, darkly jovial manner and gravelly purr. Early on, Smith gives Abin an overlong sermon on sin that might have become weary if Parks wasn’t so tremendous as a sing-songy, hymn-loving grandpa who dances and shimmers with righteous evil.
And Goodman is even more impressive, never once treating his role or the film like a joke or a lark. Oscar-winner Melissa Leo plays Able’s devoted daughter, and Cop Out survivor Kevin Pollack’s ATF agent is the film’s lone Smithian smartass. Also on hand are Stephen Root as a local sheriff and Ceremony’s Michael Angarano as a randy teenager.
The characters of Red State tilt toward stereotypical caricatures—Smith doesn’t have as rich an understanding of heartland fundamentalists as he does of New Jersey slackers. And the film is obviously intended to push religious and cultural buttons–the filmmaker (a devout Christian) has been down this road before with the much sillier and more satiric Dogma.
But while Smith clearly hates Abin’s extremism, he also understands and takes seriously the character’s belief. When the preacher’s homophobic followers worry that a victim’s saliva will “turn them gay,” it might have played as a broad joke in an earlier Smith film. In Red State it feels real and unnerving.
Smith’s always mocked his own cinematic weaknesses, making fun of his films’ flat, ugly appearances before anyone else could. But in Red State he and his long-time cinematographer David Klein use roaming hand-held cameras to give the film a washed-out, naturalistic intensity and immediacy. The ugliness here feels dynamic, purposeful, and focused, not lazy or lackadaisical.
This isn’t a perfect film—Smith’s not really out to make a horror film, but he comes at his “we are the monsters” ideas with such raw force that as social commentary they don’t all come together into a cohesive statement. But Red State has staggering cinematic energy—it lands a creative gut-punch that’s got me liking it more with each viewing.
Red State is a spectacular reawakening—the glorious, sometimes gory shout of a burned-out filmmaker roaring back to life with a deafening, angry new voice. It’s a game changer for Smith, assuming he changes his mind about retirement. And I truly hope he does. Red State has washed away my apathy–I desperately want to see what a revitalized second half brings to Smith’s career.
More from the cast of Red State at redbox:
- Melissa Leo in The Fighter DVD and Blu-ray, and Welcome to the Rileys
- Steven Root in Everything Must Go, The Conspirator, and Rango on DVD and Blu-ray
- Michael Angarano in Ceremony