The tagline for Red State is, “An unlikely film from Kevin Smith.” That hits the nail squarely on the head. The only tagline that would be more appropriate is, “The film that Kevin Smith used to burn all his bridges and retreat into a cloud of self-pitying pot smoke (while making admittedly great podcasts about Batman).” But that’s another article entirely…
Fans of Kevin Smith films will be surprised by what Red State has in store. There is almost zero trace of Smith’s signature style, no pop culture diatribes, no frozen camera shots. There are no snarky supporting characters to mug for attention, no romantic angst. Instead long-time Smith cinematographer David Klein has turned his camera into a frantic animal and the script has been hewn down to its essentials. What makes Red State so “unlikely” in the director’s oeuvre is that it really is an honest-to-goodness horror movie, though one unlike what contemporary audiences are used to. If it weren’t so dismally nihilistic I think I might call it refreshing.
The film is unconventional in that it doesn’t quite follow a set protagonist (though you will be tricked into thinking it does) and doesn’t quite follow the traditional three-act structure. In fact, if I were to go into how exactly the film changes its focus, I might spoil some of the narrative twists. I will keep the summary very brief and say that the film takes place in a rather backwoods part of the U.S. and concerns the militant doings of the Five Points Trinity Church, a fundamentalist Christian sect led by Abin Cooper (a very creepy Michael Parks). Five Points is basically the Westboro Baptists meets the Branch Davidians and they have an earnest hatred of homosexuals, blaming them for everything wrong with America. The film escalates from a traditional teen horror film into a federal incident once the Five Points’ murderous tendencies become public. When ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) is called in to deal with the violence, all hell breaks loose, resulting in a standoff that will leave very few standing.
First of all, let’s commend Mr. Smith for making this movie for $4 million. That’s no mean feat. It certainly doesn’t look cheap. Its visual style is used to great effect, both to set the tone of the film and to differentiate it from the director’s past work. From the opening moments to its odd closing monologue, Red State departs from genre expectations.
Two films actually came to mind while watching this thing and, bizarrely enough, they were House of 1,000 Corpses and No Country for Old Men. The Corpses reference comes because this was a self-made project of love from a director with huge indy cred but, at best, no more than a cult following (to be fair, it’s a big cult following – and a cult of personality, at that). Red State was Smith’s creepy little dream project while he worked on other things. Perhaps it was meant to reestablish him as a legitimate director after the debacle that was Cop Out, previously titled A Couple of Dicks, previously titled, “Wait, Why is Kevin Smith Directing This Tripe? I Mean, Jersey Girl Was a Bit Maudlin for My Tastes but Chasing Amy was Solid, Right?” Like Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, Red State is about an isolated community of freaky people who murder outsiders. Unlike Zombie’s film, Red State concerns freaky people who aren’t that far removed from reality and whose hatred is, to this reviewer, much more disturbing than Zombie’s perverted circus. There is an execution scene in Cooper’s church that is scarier than anything in 2013’s Evil Dead remake, and it is scary because it is brutal and strange – but even more saliently, because it is unjust and wrong. The film’s parallels to No Country for Old Men are drawn from its relentless brutality and in the film’s summation by its lead character, Agent Keenan (played with heartbreaking sobriety by John Goodman).
Infamously (at least in the industry), Smith chose to distribute the film himself. He did it in the most audacious manner possible and I hope to go into more detail about its effect on his reputation and its lack of effect on the industry in a future retrospective on his work. But because of how the film was distributed, its impact has been fairly small and the number of people who’ve actually seen it is down down, baby (yo’ street in a Ranger Rover). It received mixed reviews from critics; some thought it was too political or too impolitical, too sparse, too jumbled, etc.; some thought it was great. Personally I found it very disturbing. I found it disturbing on multiple levels, both in its depiction of government and in the actions of the Five Points church, and it is because these are things that I’m already leery of.
I will admit that while the film defies traditional narrative expectations, its unwillingness to spare any of its characters from death is depressing. But, even though the film depressed me, that is exactly why I consider it a success. Kevin Smith managed to make me feel genuinely ill. It’s weird to be affected by a horror film at twenty-seven-years-old.
I say bring on Tusk, good sir!
Red State (2011)
Directed by Kevin Smith
SModcast Pictures / Lionsgate
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