Film Review: Red State (SModcast Pictures)



by Clayton Shank



Michael Parks stars in Red State from writer/director Kevin Smith


Kevin Smith‘s Red State is as much an experiment as it is a departure. We all know Smith as the controversial director that infuses adult

Kerry Bishé in Red State

conversation in his films, usually masked behind the slapstick and irreverence of his two primary characters, Jay and Silent Bob. Well, except Cop Out. Forget that one. And Smith would agree.

Smith gained notoriety for Red State when he decided to promote and market the film himself, taking the ball out of the hands of the studios that have a track record of over-advertising his modestly budgeted films. His argument is quite persuasive, why spend 20 million dollars advertising a 2 million dollar movie? This over saturation puts his films in an immediate hole that is beyond the economic clout of his primary audience. Henceforth, his films on paper look like a failure. I was able to catch his nationwide tour’s stop at Hollywood’s New Beverly Cinema, a cinephile sanctuary known for screening double features, grindhouse flicks and other cult classics.

I mentioned that Red State is a departure. Oh, is it. Smith gives us a suspenseful, religiously-themed horror/thriller spotted with his trademark dialogue. There is a conversation going on here, but it is primarily visual and conceptual. We are introduced to three high school boys, Travis, Billy-Ray and Ronnie, who are lured into a sexual encounter by a woman old enough to be their mother. The group sex scenario turns out to be an ambush, where the kids are drugged and apprehended by the Five Points Trinity Church, an extremist community led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, gleefully demented). We learn that the deranged religious sect, modeled after Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (God hates fags), has plans to make the kids sacrificial lambs in propitiation  to the Lord for the sins of a poisoned, general populace. Parks gives a bravura performance of focused lunacy, highlighted by a gripping monologue that introduces us to his shepherd mentality. I would not be surprised if there is a push for award consideration.

Melissa Leo in Red State

The kidnapping grabs the attention of Sherrif Wynan (Stephen Root), a married but closeted homosexual who learns the Cooper clan has been investigated before by the ATF. Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) believes the Coopers have attainted an automatic arsenal via black market smuggling, and is dispatched to the Five Points compound, which not unlike the parallel events of Waco, Texas in the 90s, will quickly become a hostile situation.

Smith challenges our expectations with his film’s subject matter, but also with its style. He does not want us to be comfortable. Seemingly primary characters are killed off, recalling Drew Barrymore in Scream and Vivien Leigh in Psycho. When a director goes this route, all bets are off. Additionally, Smith teases us with plot information that adds up to absolutely nothing. This could be construed as manipulative, but I found it refreshing.

John Goodman in Red State

Shot on the Red camera, cinematographer David Klein achieves an action / horror hybrid with an indie aesthetic. The film is essentially a hand held production, and some of the perspective shots Smith gives his characters, especially in a stairwell chase scene, are absolutely riveting. Smith shows a fine eye for the claustrophobic visuals enshrined in the halls of great horror cinema, and I have to wonder why it took him so long to go this direction.

The big question is, what is the point? Red State is a conversation of moral relativism, where authority figures must grapple with their everyday values when commanded to do horrific acts. When coupled with the nut job factory of Cooper and his ilk, we are left with the conclusion that Smith is still on the fence, thrusting the impossible question into the laps of his audience.

This is probably for the best. When the credits rolled, I sat in my chair thinking the film was too uneven, and Smith was egregiously jarring the audience with his smash cuts of violence and macabre conversation. After attending the following Q and A session with Smith himself, in which I was fortunate enough to ask a question, I gained a greater appreciation for what he was going for, although I contend the final production doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. Regardless, it’s a ballsy, surprising effort from a great writer and a good director that deserves to be seen and contemplated by those with a capacity for appreciating the subtext.

Official Red State Website


About the Author