Red State (2011) Review

There comes a moment in Red State, the first “horror film” by indie darling and View Askewniverse maestro Kevin Smith, when something happens that is at first so extraordinarily unexpected that the film seems about to launch itself into the stratosphere of greatness. That moment, when it comes, and the way Smith allows it to linger in the air for just a moment, had me feeling the most joyous sense of anticipation I’ve felt while watching a movie in a long, long time.

Unfortunately, Smith takes us directly to an explanation of what it was the characters experienced, thereby leaving the moment — and the film — ultimately pointless.

That’s not to say the film is bad, however. But before I go into a disseration, let’s go over the set up:

Three boys drive into a small hick town in hopes of bedding a woman they’ve been flirting with online. I’m not ruining anything by telling you it’s a trap, and that the boys find themselves abducted by a group of religious zealots who lure potential perverts into their small town and then murder them in the name of enforcing God’s will, and defending the human race from deviants.

This motivation is explained in an extended monologue from the great character actor Michael Parks (here playing the reverend leader of the homicidal cult) that is both very well-written and very well-performed. But it’s during this monologue that I began to get the creeping suspicion that something was missing. And I was right.

The film has no first act.

There is no real set-up. We are shown characters with very little introduction who are thrown directly into a dangerous situation by a threat which robs itself of its mystery and potential suspense by immediately explaining itself. As such, we’re never allowed to discover things, or to experience a story which unfolds. The effect is similar to walking into a movie theater a half hour after the movie’s started.

But as I mentioned above, that’s not to say this is a bad film. With the exception of the three teens the film opens on — and who thankfully are involved only sporadically after a certain point — performances are top notch across the boards. But the film really belongs to Michael Parks (at his playfully psychotic best) and John Goodman, who hasn’t been this good in years. Not that he’s been bad all those years, but because this is his first truly dramatic (read: non-comedic) role in years. Goodman brings a sense of authentic anxiety to his role of an FBI field agent unable to detach himself when given an order which will benefit him professionally, but which directly conflicts with his own ethics and morals. Like the Parks role, Goodman’s is exceptionally written, and just as exceptionally performed.

Story wise, Smith has a lot going on in Red State. But before I get into that, let me point out that while the film is being announced as Smith’s first horror film — it’s actually NOT a horror film. At best, I’d call it a religious thriller, but like most Smith films Red State defies pigeonholing by exploring numerous themes and subjects without focusing on any one in specific.

Much as Clerks wasn’t just a crass comedy but also a drama, AND a farce, AND a love story, AND a commentary on disaffected youths, Red State delves into such subjects as religious zealotry, home-grown terrorism, government bureaucracy and is, most overtly, a parable and exploration of such state vs church debacles as the BATF’s raid on the Branch Davidian in Waco, TX. Unlike news coverage of that tragic incident, however, Smith allows us to see the event through the eyes of both the FBI (via Goodman) and the sect (via Parks, as well as his character’s granddaughter).

From a directorial standpoint, Red State is a definite step up for Smith in regards to moving the camera. In every film up to this point, Smith has adopted a “point and shoot” approach to directing that, while not overly exciting, nevertheless works, when you consider that his films have always been dialogue- and character-driven. There’s been no action or horror, so there’s been no need for a stylistic visual approach. However for Red State Smith has removed his camera from its tripod and allows it to roam and show us things, and his handling of action scenes has improved by far (in comparison to clumisly handled bits in such films as Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).

Now, it may seem as though I’m picking on Smith here and there, but I’m not. In fact, Kevin Smith is a filmmaker who has yet to make a film I have not thoroughly enjoyed. Every film he’s made to date — and yes, I’m including Mall Rats, Jersey Girl and Cop Out — I have seen multiple times each, and enjoy them every time I watch them. There’s not a single other director out there, be he Kubrick, Silliphant, Hitchcock, Carpenter, Darabont, what have you, that I can say the same about. Those may all be great directors, but each has made at least one movie I didn’t like. Smith, however, hasn’t.

In fact, even after watching Red State I can safely say he STILL has yet to make a movie I haven’t enjoyed. Because while the film has its flaws and come final fade-out ultimately renders itself pointless, the ride toward that pointless ending is engaging, engrossing, well-executed and, thanks to a number of genuine “Oh, shit!” moments, jolting as well. And that’s more than can be said for most flicks claiming to be horror movies these days.

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