***1/2 (out of 5)
September 23, 2011
Michael Parks as ABIN COOPER
John Goodman as AGENT KEENAN
Melissa Leo as SARAH
Ralph Garman as CALEB
Kerry Bishe as CHEYENNE
Haley Ramm as MAGGIE
Michael Angarano as TRAVIS
Kyle Gallner as JARED
Nicholas Braun as BILLY RAY
Stephen Root as SHERIFF WYNAN
Directed by: Kevin Smith
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
“Red State” is one of those films where the news and buzz surrounding it can easily color the viewer’s opinion of it. Ever since director Kevin Smith stupidly and bitterly lashed out at critics for panning his stank of a movie known as “Cop Out,” we’ve had a bone to pick with the guy. It got worse when he went on periodic Twitter blocking campaigns.
All this then came to a head with a stunt show at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in which he premiered “Red State” and then held a mock auction, selling the movie to himself for $20. With much hoopla, Smith promised to self-distribute the movie and revolutionize independent film once again.
That didn’t exactly happen. While he bundled “Red State” with his long-form road show, charging $60 to $75 a ticket for the whole shebang (a price which few paid to see the movie but rather to see yet another evening with Kevin Smith), the self-distribution deal deteriorated into a pricey $10 On Demand platform before the not-quite-independent DVD and Blu-ray release, partnered with Lionsgate.
Was the self-distribution of “Red State” a failure? Not really, considering the road show alone drew enough scratch to cover Smith’s expenses. But the dreams of independent filmmakers dropping their movie into your local multiplex died with the characters in the film.
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean squat to the quality of the film, which is considerable when you take into account the filmography of its director. Smith has consistently delivered mostly funny and often irreverent slacker comedies replete with dick and fart jokes, crass language and scrappy dialogue that (as long as it’s delivered by the right actors) can make many people laugh.
So the maelstrom of controversy, Twitter PMS eruptions and childish behavior has turned a lot of folks sour on the one-time darling director. And that’s a real shame because “Red State” is the first time I’ve seen Kevin Smith grow since he attempted something different with “Jersey Girl”… and “Red State” works in its form much better than that film ever did.
So let’s leave any drama outside of this film to the side for a bit and consider “Red State” as a stand-alone product. The story follows a thinly-veiled version of the Westboro Baptist Church (here known as the Five Points Church) who crusade against homosexuals and anyone who doesn’t agree with their specific brand of extreme fundamental religion. Led by Abin Cooper, the Five Point Church congregation numbers less than two dozen and comprises most of his close family.
Three horny teenage boys answer an online ad for a prostitute who promises a four-way at a discounted price. They head out one evening to meet the woman in her trailer. The kids, blinded by hormones, don’t realize that it’s actually a haggard Melissa Leo (a looker from the discount escort service if I ever saw one), so they’re ready to go. However, after drinking a few beers with her, they pass out. When they come to, they find themselves in the middle of the Five Points Church, ready to be dealt punishment for their sins by Abin Cooper and his flock.
The film takes a different turn when the ATF are alerted to some weapons hoarding by the Five Pointers. What was allegorical to the Westboro Baptist Church suddenly becomes the same to the Branch Dividians. A conflicted ATF agent tries to rationalize the protection of the public with following morally questionable orders as a stand-off ensues.
Smith does a lot of impressive things with this film, surprisingly with some of the same crew that hacked their way through “Clerks” and many of his other movies. In particular, pedantic cinematographer Dave Klein actually puts some guts into the movie with a grittier look and more natural fluid camera movements. Smith edited the film himself, and while it’s not as tight and as crisp as it could be, the action sequences and pacing works so much better than the ones in “Cop Out” did.
He also juggles a lot of heavy issues, including the first and second amendments, homophobia, the questioning of authority, religious extremism and general morality. Free, for the most part, of the sophomoric dialogue of this other films, this is easily Smith’s most mature endeavor to date, and it shows significant growth as a filmmaker.
And that’s what makes “Red State” both a triumph and a let-down. While you can’t believe everything Smith says because the guy’s like a politician with spin and backpedaling, but the current story is that after he makes his follow-up movie “Hit Somebody,” he’s retiring from filmmaking. (This, of course, ignores the half dozen television and video projects he’s announced since his previous announcement of his version of the Cher Farewell Tour.)
I really hope he doesn’t retire because the guy has finally moved out of his comfort zone, and it’s good for him. I’d like to see him continue to grow as a filmmaker because the guy’s got talent. He just doesn’t have confidence. He came so far from everything else he has ever done to make “Red State” that I’d like to see him go further. But then again, it took him 17 years to make that one giant leap, so he might sink back into his den of marijuana and comic books at the next bump in the road.
Now, this all doesn’t mean that “Red State” is not without its flaws. First, as much as it’s been characterized as a horror movie, it really isn’t. It’s more of a drama. Sure, it has horrific elements to it, but it’s not something that belongs on the horror shelf.
Second, as extremely well cast as the film is, the actors work to overcome plenty of scripting problems. There’s a sequence in the middle in which Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) literally delivers a full sermon, and it gets boring as hell. I think Smith was going for suspense, because the fate of the high school kids is up in the air at that point, but he misses the mark here. Smith has used big names in the past, but he’s never handled them as well as he did in this film. John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Michael Parks deliver outside of the standard performances that Smith pulls from favorites like Ben Affleck and Jason Lee.
Finally, Smith is a great writer in his comfort zone, but when he steps outside of it with touchy subjects, he can get a little preachy. I’m not just talking about Michael Parks reel-long sermon, but also Smith’s obvious disdain for organized religion that seeps through the film. We saw this in “Dogma,” but as a comedy, it was more forgivable. In this dramatic setting, the intentionally unfunny religious nuts along with the intentionally unfunny obnoxious teenagers leave few people to sympathize with in the story. Though I suppose that’s part of his point.
But when the dust settles, “Red State” is definitely worth checking out, especially if you’d like to see what Kevin Smith could do outside of his self-imposed View Askewniverse prison.