If you’re familiar with Kevin Smith as a director, you probably have a pretty solid idea of what to expect from him: semi-controversial comedies featuring stoners, slackers and working men and women armed with scathing observational humor. It’s an understandable preconceived notion, since pretty much all of his films fit the bill, from his best films (Clerks & Chasing Amy) to those in between (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma & Clerks 2) to his worst (Mallrats & Zack and Miri Make a Porno). However, it appears that Kevin Smith is turning over a new leaf. In 2010, many of us sat dumbfounded when “Directed by Kevin Smith” flashed on the screen of Cop Out, an offbeat buddy-cop comedy with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. While the film had a certain dark sensibility that seemed a bit out of place at times within the genre, Cop Out was mostly another exercise in worn-out, cliché-ridden filmmaking. But at least it got Smith out of his usual fare, because Smith has directed Red State, an uneven-but-intriguing film – worthwhile partly because it’s so unlike his earlier films.
In essence, Red State is part horror, part action/thriller, but a real synopsis of how one part leads to other would be spoiling things, so allow me some vagueness in linking things together to prevent ruining any surprises. At its core, the film deals with an anti-gay fundamentalist religious group. First, there are some teenage boys who get entangled with the church. Next, a bumbling cop shows up and makes things a bit messy. Meanwhile, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms) is investigating the group because they believe them to be stockpiling weapons. Somehow, all of these elements come together, and the film takes a few bloody turns, including some difficult scenes of torture and other graphic violence – we’re not talking a “torture porn” level of violence, but there are some impressive/disturbing shots.
And there are some very obvious references here. In terms of plot, the group is clearly similar to Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (who is even referenced in the film), the group that famously pickets funerals of gay figures and runs hateful websites, and the ATF/religious group dichotomy in the film has similarities with the Branch Davidians in Waco. Stylistically, the film resembles the directors who Smith says inspired it: Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers (especially the latter’s less comedic, more violent films like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men). As my companion noticed, some of the plot points and developments even seem to have been taken from Smith’s inspiration, such as introducing a major character a third of the way through the film by waking the person up with a phone call (Fargo anyone?).
But this is not a film that should be faulted for its references because it wears them proudly on its sleeve, and the writing is not only reverential in its references, but it is also the one place where Smith can actually be clearly seen. While not as witty as his other films due to subject matter, the dialogue is realistic and we even occasionally get a laugh line thrown in to prevent the film from descending into complete bleakness. In addition to the strong dialogue, there are some positives not normally associated with Kevin Smith. First, there are some incredible actors here, with Michael Parks (as the hateful pastor, Cooper), John Goodman (as the ATF agent) and Melissa Leo (as the daughter of Cooper) delivering especially strong performances. Perhaps the most welcome surprise, the handheld cinematography is incredibly dynamic and keeps the film moving, which is shocking considering this is the same person who has done most of Smith’s traditionally static films.
But great dialogue, acting and cinematography don’t make an entire film if there are additional problems, and Red State is not without its flaws. While Smith is obviously well versed in horror films, his first attempt at making one proves that it’s a difficult genre to master, even for someone who knows them so well. Red State initially sets off as a horror seeming to satirize hate groups by portraying their agenda to a logical extreme, but it loses steam, feeling as if Smith had a great idea for a contemporary horror but lost his nerve when it came time to write an appropriately difficult ending. What makes the film initially horrifying is quickly left behind and forgotten as the film takes a few enormous tonal shifts, becoming a kind of action/thriller instead and ending on what is ultimately a joke. If Smith wanted Red State to be taken seriously as a genre film, he needed to push it to an uncomfortable conclusion rather than take the easy way out.
Ultimately, Red State is a good but generally uneven film that has a solid foundation as a satire on and indictment of religious fundamentalism, but it doesn’t have the conviction necessary to be a great, memorable film. The strong performances, writing and cinematography make the film worth checking out, and while it’s not one of the strongest films in Kevin Smith’s canon, it’s also not one of the worst, and both Smith and genre fans will probably appreciate the novelty of seeing Smith do something so out of his usual character.
- John Clark
August 22, 2011