Kevin Smith announced his retirement from directing right around the same time that Red State premiered. Which is to say, just when he was starting to look promising again. It’s been a rough several years for Kevin Smith fans, watching him rehash old characters, direct other people’s scripts, and generally failing to deliver anything fresh. Then, just as the world had written him off as a one-trick pony, he goes and makes a film that is such a departure from his oeuvre, that doesn’t center entirely around witty banter, that feels genuinely cinematic, and that is such a departure from the rest of his oeuvre that you’d think he’d experienced a personal career renaissance. It feels like the work of a man with a renewed passion for his craft, not someone so fed up with filmmaking that he’s talking retirement in his thirties.
From the get-go, Red State does not feel like a Kevin Smith film. The grainy, grimy, low-budget feel of the film seems like an artistic choice rather than a byproduct of its admittedly low budget. Okay, that’s faint praise, I know, but Smith himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t much care what his films look like.
The dialogue, for the most part, doesn’t sound like your typical Kevin Smith rapid-fire back and forth between a couple of wittier-than-thou fanboys. The teenagers who are lured to the Five Point Church may shoot off a couple of good one-liners now and again, but it doesn’t sound blatantly scripted. A lot of their dialogue suggests lame attempts to sound cool to each other rather than Smith’s attempt to sound cool to his audience. Tucker, of the If We Made It Podcast, points out that this is the first time Smith has actually written characters rather than mouthpieces for himself. That about sums it up perfectly. Once the government siege starts, there’s a bit of conspicuous, too-clever-for-its-own-good Kevin Smith dialogue, but by that point you’ve already been treated to Michael Parks’s riveting 15 minute sermon, and if you’re not won over by that, just turn the movie off.
Michael Parks has never been better than he is here, with a menacingly understated performance full of creepy charm. You watch him preach and can instantly understand why followers would flock to him, hanging on his every repulsive, honey-coated word. As long as the sermon scene went on, I didn’t want it to end. But it ends with a blast, literally. The murder at the end of the sermon was truly an original one, and a brilliant little piece of indie-ingenuity. The church has got a homosexual wrapped from neck to toe in plastic wrap, before the murder, they wrap up the rest of his head, then shoot straight down into the top of his skull. The plastic wrap fills with blood, but it is contained for easy clean-up. Given the budget he was working with, I’m sure the plastic wrap bit was something of a necessity. Not having to show his face meant not needing an expensive prosthetic or digital effects. But the end result is an truly original death scene that turns your stomach without being overly gory.
Another aspect of the film that impressed me was the direction of the action sequences. Action is hard to shoot effectively, and for someone not too experienced with this type of film, Smith pulls it off admirably. My favorite sequence (aside from Parks’s monologue) is the scene where one of the teenagers has freed himself, found an assault rifle, and needs to find a way out. He runs through these tight hallways that amplify his footfalls and really give you a sense of the physical space. It feels chaotic and claustrophobic even before they zealots spot him and give chase. Once the chase is on, this same feeling is ratcheted up about ten notches until the teenager finally gets out into the open and is suddenly shot by the government agents that the audience didn’t even know was there. Smith works in several jaw-dropping shocks like this, leaving me to wonder why he’s been so focused on comedy all these years.
It’s also worth mentioning that the sound design is pretty much perfect in this film. Those booming footfalls in the corridors are really what drive that scene, and during the firefight between the church members and the feds, the gunshots are so powerful and feel so close that it really puts you on edge. It feels incredibly dangerous, more so than in your typical action movie. At the end of the film, these incredibly powerful horn blasts come out of nowhere, signaling to the church members that the rapture is at hand. Ever through my crappy speakers, the sound of those blasts rattled the floor and added a truly jarring element at just the right time in the film. I was very much in awe at this point.
…Which brings me to the film’s basic structural flaw that robs the audience of its climax and pretty much neuters the film. After the trumpet blasts ring out, the true believers put down their weapons and emerge from the compound in triumph, not to surrender, but to declare victory. They confront the feds, and John Goodman’s character, who is leading the raid, believes on some level that the trumpets are a sign not to slaughter the church membership as per his orders. The film goes right to the tipping point, and you’re not sure if the feds are going to open fire, or if brimstone will shower down from the sky, and then…
…then you’re in a government conference room during John Goodman’s debriefing. He explains what exactly happened (the trumpet sounds were a conveniently-timed practical joke by some hippy neighbors). Then he relays a not entirely applicable anecdote about dogs fighting over a turkey leg, makes a ham-fisted point about the dangerous of dogmatic beliefs, and leaves.
This isn’t the first time that Kevin Smith has given me false hope that the end of the world is nigh. One of his first shots at writing comics was a Daredevil story where all kinds of weird happenings were pointing to the endtimes. Of course, in the end it was all just a hoax perpetrated an obscure villain orchestrated solely to show off Smith’s knowledge of obscure comic book villains. I wanted Red State to end with the MUTHERFUCKING WRATH OF GOD! I wanted the sky to open up and give the mass murderers on both sides of the spectrum a hot brimstone shower with a nice exfoliating plague of locusts on top. I mean, at this point, the audience is abundantly clear about the film’s message. The last thing we need is a dead horse-beating exposition scene.
The very last scene is pretty good though. We see Michael Parks’s good reverend in prison singing hymns to himself and demonstrating that his faith is unshaken. It goes on for some time before the distant shout of a fellow prisoner tells him to “Shut the fuck up!” Roll credits. Writing it down like this makes it sound stupid, but the humor (and poignancy) come from the juxtaposition of this scene with the sermon scene in which his followers hang on his every word and encourage him with exclamations of “Preach it!” and the like. The final scene highlights how far he’s fallen, and gives us a bit of satisfaction that the inmates aren’t likely to fall for his self-righteous sermonizing.
Way to over-explain it, Marvin.
As his “auctioning” of the film’s distribution rights suggests, Red State is a movie by a filmmaker who has given up trying to please people. Remember the last time Smith tried something new? He took a more serious dramatic turn with Jersey Girl, and when his core fanbase criticized it, he piled on too, apologizing and admitting it sucked (hey, no more than Dogma). Then he immediately went back to his tried and true characters with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. His entire career since then has been about pleasing the fans, until now. Ironically, trying to cater to his fans has led to losing many of them. If he’d just continue in the direction he started with Red State and try to grow as a filmmaker, he’d probably win them all back and then some.