Confidence is a crucial quality in a filmmaker. Unlike the artistic expression of a painting or a novel, a film requires marshaling a small army to execute thousands of decisions in order to achieve a filmmaker’s vision. Kevin Smith is not a filmmaker who exudes confidence. After the noble failure of Jersey Girl, he retreated to the safety of Clerks II and then followed it up with the simple-yet-enjoyable Zack and Miri Make a Porno and the widely-despised Cop Out. His new film, Red State, is a radical departure for Smith and yet he lacks the confidence to properly execute the action-horror-thriller he’s devised. Visually and aurally impressive and featuring a phenomenal performance from Michael Parks, the film never completely comes together as it’s undermined by poorly-timed humor, clumsy exposition, and a refusal to trust the audience with ideas more complex than “fascism is bad.”
A trio of high-school friends (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun) thinks they’re going to a gangbang, but are lured into a trap by Pastor Abin Cooper (Parks) and his ultra-conservative Five Points Church. Based on the real-life pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, Five Points protests funerals with signs saying “God Hates Fags”. But Cooper and Five Points believes that protesting homosexuality is hardly enough. They believe that homosexuals and all sinners must be purged from the Earth. In its first half, Red State is a pseudo-horror film that has the at the mercy of the sadistic pastor and his flock. But half-way through, Red State turns from being a horror film and morphs into a full-blown action movie, complete with every bullet on earth being fired. The transition doesn’t hurt the film. What hurts the film is Smith’s inability to trust the tension he’s created through impressive visuals and audio.
Smith has never been known as a visual director. He’s rightly criticized for static camera and simplistic lighting. Smith and cinematographer David Klein craft a style that works wonders for the movie. The use of grimy filters and jittery camera-work is nothing new, but it represents a big step forward for Smith. The sound design is also terrific and Smith wisely keeps the film free from background music. The sound of bullets and the hymns of Cooper ring with perfectly clarity and impact.
Although Red State represents a technical improvement in Smith’s direction, he’s still his own worst enemy when it comes to pacing and dialogue. The introduction of Five Points is sloppily handled in a classroom scene and then halfway through the film we get yet another long scene of exposition regarding the church. Smith’s humor also hurts the film when it comes to the second-half of the movie. It’s great for the introduction because it lulls the viewer into a false sense of security and Smith shows admirable restraint during the horror half of the movie. But once the bullets start flying, Smith feels it’s necessary to have characters start cracking jokes in the middle of the firefight. He has an opportunity to raise the tension to the point where the audience can barely breath and he blows it. And while the horror section is the stronger portion of the movie, it features a sermon from Parks that goes on far too long. Smith has always been a fan of monologues, but the sermon is so lengthy that even Parks’ remarkable performance can’t hold the audience’s attention.
Parks is an essential part of the film and he takes a juicy role and does wonders with it. He gives Cooper a sonorous voice and a sociopathic detachment that keeps the larger-than-life figure feeling authentic. You’ll never hear Cooper scream in anger. Rather, he’s a calm collected serial killer and his congregation and faith are his weapons. Also getting a chance to shine is Melissa Leo as Parks’ daughter. John Goodman has the thankless task of being a mouthpiece for exposition and then delivering a clumsy message at the end about how fascism is wrong whether it comes from a church or the government. The scene is punctuated by talk about “coke-can cocks” and other lines of Smith’s trademark vulgarity that are incongruous with the tone of the rest of the movie.
It’s admirable that Kevin Smith finally took a chance on breaking free from comedy flicks and used a visual style that was foreign to his work. But he never jumps in with both feet and he constantly undermines himself. However, the film marks a significant step forward for him as a filmmaker. But after 17 years and his announcement that his next film, Hit Somebody, will be his last, it looks like Red State is too little, too late.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: