There are some directors out there that operate within a nice comfort zone. Some stick to horror, some stick to comedy, some stick to science fiction. Those that do usually do so because they have a love of the genre and a committed fan base that expects such genre films. Kevin Smith has always been one of those directors. For 9 films now Kevin Smith has directed nothing but comedies, albeit with slight shifts in tone or style. With Red State Kevin Smith has clearly decided it’s time to try his hand at something different. What may be Red State’s biggest issue though is what exactly that is… Click the link to read on.
When Smith first started talking about Red State he described it as a brutal horror movie. That was quite some years ago and in that time the idea has clearly gestated and mutated through many guises. What we have here is a film that combines elements of horror, occasional action and a large does of social & political commentary. It’s tone is consistent and whilst it has a few moments of some pitch black humour it is almost entirely played as straight as a ruler.
A typical horror premise is what gets this film rolling as 3 friends head out to the middle of nowhere to meet a woman that has promised them some good old fashioned drunken fatal four way action. As in sexy sex between three guys and one older lady. That’s what most teens look forward to these days. I know because I heard about it on the internet. As you can imagine they don’t so much get to partake in sexy sex as they do get drugged and imprisoned in the church of one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), an extremist evangelical self appointed defender of good against the evils of pretty much everything not Christian. Or at least his views of Christian. Cooper is quite clearly based on Westboro Baptist Church activist and general douche-bag Fred Phelps. The name is even dropped a couple of times over the film with ATF officer Joseph Keenen (John Goodman), albeit with the distinction that Phelps is a suer not a doer, unlike Cooper.
Naturally people start dying and you’d think this would be where the teenagers rally together to fight back, maybe helping a token love interest escape the clutches of her families church along the way. Well there’s elements of that but that is not how the story progresses. As scatter-shot as Red State’s genre is, so to are it’s characters. There is no definable main protagonist in this film. The character you’re introduced to first, Travis (Michael Aragarano who you may remember from the excellent Dear Wendy), does not get put in the natural situation you’d expect him to early on. Usually in a film if there’s a horror to be exposed early on to coax you into disliking the villain the main character would be a first had witness to that event. Here, and quite deliberately, it is one of Travis’ friends that become the witness to the horror. Before long Keenen takes over as the films apparent lead and the buck Is passed between characters at various points.
It’s perhaps fair to say that this is unfocused and risks causing the viewer to lose interest. Who do you identify with when you’re being bumped around between various characters you barely know. This is on purpose though, despite what some would say. Kevin Smith is attempting to recreate the panicked and confused atmosphere of a Waco like disaster. But whilst he has a good idea how to carry this out he fumbles the landing. What this film does manage expertly though is to always be surprising. I challenge anyone to guess where this film heads within the first 10 minutes. I won’t ruin it but lets just say that if it wasn’t for budgetary constraints the film would have had a much more unpredictable climax.
Most of the cast pull off their roles well, clearly investing themselves in the film fully. It is Michael Parks however that steals the show. His hate filled monologue at the start of the film’s second act is, while quite lengthy, chilling and expertly delivered. It is paced and timed to slowly build the anticipation of the oncoming horror whilst making sure that that feeling you get in your gut when you know something is just plain wrong is firing away like Yosemite Sam. Abin Cooper is an evil man and there’s no questioning that. Who’d have thought that Smith could write a genuinely chilling villain. It’s thanks to Smith remembering the one thing that always makes a villain work and that’s their conviction in what they believe as being right. Without that a villain doesn’t strike those same chords. Unlike some villains though there’s no questioning that Abin is wrong in every way.
I’ve reviewed quite a few low budget films on here since I started this little blog around 9 months ago. Shot with just $4million to it’s budget Red State certainly looks it. But it does not by any means look bad. Smith isn’t directing this in the same two-shots and shot-reverse-shot format as all his other films. The film is a clear statement by him that he can adapt to different styles as needed. It’s a shame that Smith is planning to retire form directing after he completes Hit Somebody as I’d certainly like to see his take on other genres beyond comedy. If he can approach them with as much of a tonal shift in his style as he has with red State I think he could really develop as a director beyond what he’s shown to us so far.
Red State is by no means a great film. It is a messy film that does fail to tell a truly coherent story. But it’s engaging, interesting and has plenty to say. It is constantly surprising and is by far Smith’s most daring film. Hell, there aren’t many films this daring being made by established directors anywhere in the Western world. Even Cronenberg has stopped doing his grotesque form of body horror. Although I suppose in his case you could argue that not doing that is daring for him in much the same way as The Straight Story was daring for Lynch to put out at that point in his career. Overall red State is a unique film that is more about an event that escalates from bad to worse to terrible over the course of a few hours. It has something to say about religious extremism and the Governments that rule over our lives. A film that is worth seeing for it’s uniqueness but maybe not for every Kevin Smith fan.