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@thatKevinSmith, the one-time indie wunderkind, is now more synonymous with his Smodcast Empire (podcasts, internet radios, and now movie production) and being “too fat to fly”, than his directorial output. Not too surprising when said CV is stained with the likes of Cop Out and Zack and Miri make a Porno. But you can’t avoid the fact that he was the Weinstein baby who bought us the monochrome genius of the Quick Stop and the razor sharp Chasing Amy.
So in a move that seems scripted from the Hollywood cliché that goes against the anti-studio system mantra that Smith believes in – Red State was funded and domestically distributed by the former Silent Bob in order to ensure he had full control over establishment interference – he announces that he is to retire from filmmaking, like a one-last-shot sportsman from a genre flick, and that Red State will be his penultimate film. (Hockey two parter, Hit Somebody, will be his real swansong).
And if this does remain the case then it’ll be a retrospective shame, because this heart-thumping thriller is easily the best film he’s made since Amy, and comparative evaluations aside, it’s an economically superb shocker in its own right.
Leaving the comfort zone of Smith’s native Jersey, this twisted tale is situated firmly in the Bible belt of Middle America. We start with the familiarity of three hormonal teenage boys exchanging profanities over a potential online sex liaison. On the other side of town, the funeral of a gay student is taking place against a background of homophobic protests by the local church, led by charismatic preacher, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). As the day wears on in this white picket fence suburbia, both of these threads are set to collide in an apocalyptic showdown.
Easily Smith’s most technically assured, mature, and accomplished work to date. Never considered a dynamo with the camerawork, yet here he shows a subtle (and there’s a word you’d never thought would be associated with a Kevin Smith joint) use of the low tech visuals to increase the claustrophobic sense of doom that successfully suffocates the movie. The kinetics of the shaky cam work during an intense breakout scene, and then the same technique which adds so much to one (of a few too many) “gasp out loud” moments that the narrative twists elicit.
Shifting his rolodex to a new group of actors also adds a fresh touch to proceedings, and the majority of Red State’s success is down to the ensemble cast, in particular a resurgent Michael Parks (Twin Peaks). Imbuing the extremist preacher with a sparkle of the eye that’d make Hannibal Lector think he was underplaying things. It’s a pivotal role, and he, along with Smith, never allows Abin to become a diatribe against a particular religion, instead it’s made evident that this cult and their leader are their own brand of crazy, a la the Phelps family (of whom a Wikipedia search is a MUST, if only to add even more weight to this already creepy cult).
Melissa Leo and John Goodman also spark throughout, and it’s testament to Smith that even the characters clearly marked “disposable” are likeable and distinguishable in a way that few horrors tend to bother doing.
The major downfall is how the films ending is handled, specifically the bookend scene, which owes a huge debt to Burn After Reading, and is genuinely funny at a time when you’re meant to be digesting what has gone before. It’s an odd tone. Similarly, you may get frustrated with the way a few of the character arcs are abruptly and unsatisfactorily resolved.
But it’s this uneven balance (of which the second half siege is considerably weaker than the set-up) and the inability to pigeon hole Red State which makes it so good, if not to everyone’s liking. With more subtext than your average genre effort, even if it does, through thematic necessity, still conform to the “sinners being punished” rules of horror; its part frat movie, mixed with a smattering of black comedy and a splattering of red blood, and there’s not a “snootch to tha nootch” or Jason Lee cameo in site.