Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: Red State

When I first heard that Kevin Smith was going to be writing and directing a horror movie, I was expecting something satirical. Something along the lines of a slasher flick by way of Mallrats. Then, when I heard the premise, I was expecting a “teens in peril/backwoods cult” type of flick. The last thing I expected, however, was Red State. I wouldn’t even really call this a horror movie. It has the setup of a horror movie, but then it abruptly changes into something completely different. Smith didn’t go for traditional scares so much as he took two evils that exist in the world today, set them against each other, and let the fact that these people really exist do the scaring for him.

The story is pretty simple. Three teenage boys (one of whom is sporting the greatest rat tail in history) take to the internet to find some booty. They arrange to meet up for a foursome with a woman in a nearby small town. When they get there, they discover that it’s a trap and fall into the clutches of a fanatical Christian cult. Let that be a lesson to you, all those pop up ads screaming “Horny women in your area want to hook up with you TONIGHT” really are too good to be true. Anyway, the cult then comes to the attention of the government’s anti-terrorism task force, and all hell breaks loose.

The first thing that is immediately noticeable is that this looks nothing like a Kevin Smith movie. Because his comedies are so dialog driven, he rarely employs much camera movement. Most of the time he just aims the camera at the actors and lets the interplay speak for itself. This movie, however, is shot beautifully. It was completely shot handheld, which would seem to lend itself to a lot of irritating shaky cam, but it only does in a couple of sequences. The rest of the time it adds a fluidity and intimacy to the proceedings. It reminded me a little bit of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in that it almost had a documentary, cinema verite’, “you are in the middle of the action” feel. Directors and cinematographers of the world take note, handheld and “realistic” doesn’t have to equal “make the audience seasick.” Smith has also come a long way in the action scene department. I will admit that I haven’t seen Cop Out, so I’m not sure how well directed the action sequences were directed in that one. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the action scenes definitely were sub par. In this film, however, they are handled beautifully.

One of the criticisms that Smith’s movies have always drawn is that the acting seems like his buddies just delivering his great dialog instead of actually giving thoughtful performances. While I think that’s an overreaching generalization, there is a nugget of truth to that. In Red State, on the other hand, the acting is phenomenal. Michael Parks as Abin Cooper, the leader of the Five Points Baptist Church, is magnificent. Personally, I think this performance might be worthy of an Oscar nomination. Of course, Smith has pissed off the Hollywood establishment way too much for that to happen, but Parks really is that good. He combines magnetic charm with cold malice in a way that’s just plain chilling. He doesn’t go for the manic evil presence some actors would have brought to the role. Instead, he plays it as understated and subtle. John Goodman reminds us just what a good actor he is as Agent Hammond. Seriously, he hasn’t been this good in years. He gives the character such a world-weary humanity that even when he makes a decision that would place him firmly in “bad guy” territory, we can’t help feeling for him. Foregoing the swagger that government agents are usually portrayed with was a good move.

These two masterful performances drive the film, but what anchors it is the supporting cast. Melissa Leo goes just over the top enough as the most devout and fanatical of the church members. Kerry Bishe as Cheyenne, a cult member who cares more about getting the children out alive than shooting it out with the feds, is very effective. We get a cameo by the always-welcome Kevin Pollack as a federal agent. Even the three boys/victims do a good job. In fact, there really isn’t a weak link. Of special note, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the presence of Ralph Garman as Caleb. Most of you probably know Garman either from his extensive voice work on Family Guy or as the host of The Joe Schmo Show, but I know him best as the pirate radio DJ in one of the towering achievements of cinematic history…SHARKTOPUS!

It feels strange saying this considering who it is, but I was really surprised at how well written this film was. I’m a big fan of Kevin Smith’s comedies, but I had my doubts about how well he could do with serious material. I expected it to be heavy on the “Smithesque” jokes and references. It absolutely wasn’t. In fact, there are only a couple of times throughout the flick that you can tell he wrote it. Jason Mewes as Jay could have delivered some of the sexual dialog between the boys at the beginning just as easily. At the end, there is a throwaway line about “coke can c**cks” that seems like Smith reminding you that it is his flick after all. These small touches bookend a story in which Smith shows maturity as a screenwriter that is impressive. Sure it gets wordy at times. For example, at one point Cooper (has there ever been a horror movie character named Cooper that wasn’t a complete prick?) gives a sermon that basically amounts to a twelve minute long monolog. This would have stopped a lot of movies dead in their tracks. Not here! This scene is riveting and horrifying. You find yourself as glued to every word he says as you are sickened by his rhetoric. It’s obvious that Smith came from a religious background, because only someone who knows how horrifying the wrong person wielding the power of spiritual leadership can be could have written that role so effectively. At other times though, characters will have so much dialog in the middle of an action sequence that it betrays the realism of the situation a little. Yes, Tarantino does do the same thing, but his films are more ultra-stylized, so plausibility really doesn’t mean anything in his flicks. Here, it’s a minor issue, but an issue nonetheless.

As I said, the film is more thriller than horror, but that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure Smith could have done “scares,” but he puts together some extremely taught, suspenseful moments. At one point near the end, something happens that is completely unexpected, and Smith lets it continue long enough before the explanation that you start to wonder if he’s really going “that” direction with the ending. Yeah, that’s pretty vague, but I’m not spoiling that moment. It’s too good. Well played, sir.

Smith, never the one to be subtle with his politics, surprisingly keeps the film non-preachy for the most part. His portrayal of both the government and religious fundamentalism speak to the evils of both. The church is a thinly veiled doppelganger of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and the way the “Patriot Act” era government handles the situation is frighteningly and infuriatingly plausible. The message threatens to overrun the movie at times, but unlike Machete for example, it never steps over the line into propagandizing. I think Smith toed that line very skillfully. The final shot and final line, which are hilarious, have led some to say that it renders the previous tension and terrifying portrayals ineffective. I disagree. I like that Smith ends it by saying “yes, these characters, who do exist in real life, are frightening, but they’re ridiculous too.”

I have a feeling that this film will prove as divisive among fans as it has among critics. There are things about this movie, such as the heavy dialog, the parting shot, and Smith playing fast and loose with the conventions of multiple genres, that will rub some audiences the wrong way. I, however, thought it was great. If you go in expecting a straight horror flick, you’ll be a little disappointed. If you want a gritty, disturbing, grippingly dramatic portrayal of the dark side of human nature that mirrors things actually happening all around us, you’ll dig it. The film shows a lot of growth as a filmmaker from Smith, and that’s coming from someone for whom Clerks was a life changing experience. It’s a shame that he says he’s only going to make one more movie. Actually, everyone who believes that for even a second please raise your hand. I’m waiting. Yeah, I don’t buy it either. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.


Andrew said...

Great review....
I've got a totally open mind about Red State, and REALLY want to see it.

Did you hear about the protests that Westboro Baptist Church is planning for it?

Cash Wampum said...

Great review, Nate. I liked the film myself. All this talk of Smith retiring? What the hell is that? He's like our age or something. Ridiculous!!

SonOfCelluloid said...

Thanks guys. Cash, I think his "retirement" is a publicity thing. Honestly though, if I was set for life and had the option of never working another day in my life, I would take it too. Andrew, yes, I did hear about the protests. I've always wanted to go to one of the counter protests and hold a sign that says "DOG HATES DYSLEXICS!"

Cash Wampum said...

Sure I'd retire!! And spend my time doing something I love. Which is what he's doing now. You don't max out your credit cards and go for broke to make a little black and white flick because you HATE making movies. I mean shiiiiiiiiiiiit!!!

Master_Gio said...

great review, bro! I been dying to see this since i first heard about it.

Fistfull of Boomstick said...

Don't see Cop Out. The action was weak and it's his only movie to date I consider to be poor.

However, excellent review of Red State and kick ass blog in general.

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