I’m not sure if I can write a review of Kevin Smith’s Red State without coming off sounding like your standard know-it-all fanboy. I do solemnly swear, however, to present my thoughts as honestly and logically as my too-rational brain will allow me. I also want this review to be free of spoilers. So, all that said, here we go.
Two years ago I wrote this article about Mr. Smith where I considered his current state of mind following his then-new picture, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and its lackluster box-office success. In it I wrote of his new mindset regarding his career, which included a brief mention of Red State, a film he had described at the time as a political horror film, but not a horror film in the traditional sense. My interest was instantly peaked, and has been ever since until two nights ago when I got to preview the film in Atlanta at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre as part of a tour Smith put together so that he could independently promote and advertise the movie before it premieres later this year.
Smith has tweeted at length about his reasons for doing this, but if you’re not into all of that, I’ll simplify it for you. It costs money to make movies. It also costs money to advertise a movie. And often times these advertising fees can run up into millions of dollars. All of this money must be made back through box-office returns and, eventually, DVD sales. Smith, whose films generally don’t feature enormous budgets, doesn’t believe that films like his Red State, which cost only 4 million dollars to make, should have to suffer advertising fees that can potentially double production costs and lead to worrying about a film making all of its money back so that investors can be satisfied. Basically, Smith wants you, the potential audience, to pay for the movie, not the advertising.
Red State. As prior-mentioned, this is a horror film, and it stars Michael Parks, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Kyle Gallner and a slew of other actors and actresses, most of whom are relatively unknown. The trailer for the film seems to imply torture-porn (it’s not) and, again, since I want this thing to be spoiler free, I’ll only mention the movie’s premise, which I have lifted directly from IMDb:
Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.
Though I was extremely excited to preview this movie, I wasn’t without my reservations. I never questioned whether or not Smith could do horror, but I did wonder if Smith knew what he was doing in having his villain being a Christian fundamentalist. It seemed too easy (if that makes sense), especially in the information age when just about anyone with an Internet connection can make a fundamentalist look completely bonkers.
But y’know what? Smith pulled it off. And, thinking back to the film as a whole, I believe that only Smith could have pulled off a movie like this. The premise is, again, so simple that it could easily have been an agenda film envisioned by some Atheist filmmaker with it’s own preachy finger-pointing rhetoric. Smith, however, has more honest intentions: making a film that will disturb you, thrill you, chill you, twist, turn, and, ultimately, make you laugh… even if it is sort of an uncomfortable laugh. And since Smith is, himself, a self-proclaimed Christian and a natural born storyteller and writer, he knows better than to cheat an audience with a cheap plot device.
Instead of allowing the Christian fundamentalism to inform the plot, Smith instead uses it to paint his villain as a whole. Through his words, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) is immediately a force to be reckoned with, a snake in the grass. But it isn’t just words and scripture-throwing alone that makes him dangerous (because, again, anyone can do that). It’s his body language, how he moves or doesn’t move, his charisma with his followers, and of course his unquestionable confidence in all of his words and actions. And Michael Parks is electrifying.
I wrote that I had my reservations about the film but I failed to mention that some of that spawned from reading early reviews of the film that were quite unfavorable, calling the film preachy and what have you. To that end I believe that those people missed the point. They believed that Smith had an agenda. He doesn’t. Smith likes to entertain people and I believe at a certain point he felt that if he made another comedy (his usual MO) it would be letting his audience down with yet another “Kevin Smith movie” — and, ultimately, if you want to entertain people you can’t keep throwing the same dick jokes at them again and again. It was time for a curve-ball.
So, all of that said, the best way I can describe Red State to you (in terms of its tone at least) is as such:
The movie begins as Hostel, then moves into Night of the Living Dead territory, soon escalating into a Robert Rodriguez-esque action piece, then a hint of Burn After Reading, and finally ending with a line that is completely Kevin Smith.
Well, that sorta describes it, at least.
Smith wasn’t lying when he introduced the movie as being full of twists — you never really know exactly where it’s going, and there is nothing at all predictable about it’s ending — something some people will appreciate, others will be annoyed with, and a few will simply “Meh.” And since such a thing is completely subjective, I can only leave it to you like or dislike it yourself.
Much of the genius in the film, though, is the casting. Everyone should know by now that Michael Parks was amazing, but almost every single supporting role was pitch-perfect as well. Especially John Goodman. Goodman has the god-given talent of being able to command a scene with his authority one second, then have the audience crack up with a single line of dialogue the next — a key point in the movie definitely would not had worked as well as it did (or perhaps at all) had it not been for his performance. He also gives a pretty damn good monologue as well — something that when I think back to I always have the following thought: “I can’t believe Kevin Smith wrote that.”
But then, the same thought could be applied for the whole movie, I suppose.