Friday, March 11, 2011

Kevin Smith's Red State

Kevin Smith is currently touring the country with his new film Red State, while gearing up for a wider theatrical release on October 19th.

Cody has seen the movie and shares his thoughts. The devil's right in here...

Three acts, three segments of characters, each representing subjects that stir up debate and make people uncomfortable: sex, religion, and politics. Those are the elements Kevin Smith is working with in Red State, a film that largely steps away from his usual comedic territory and is hard to categorize into a specific genre. Horror, thriller, action, satirical drama, it's all mixed together in there.

With an opening scene depicting an extremist religious group picketing the funeral of a murdered homosexual man and a classroom discussion about this group, the film's antagonists are quickly established. Their presence looms over the beginning, but they're largely irrelevant to the lives of the first group of characters we get to know.


Jarod, Travis, and Billy Ray are three teenagers out to get laid. Their banter about sex is similar to the sort of comedic dialogue found in Kevin Smith's previous movies, and there are some laughs, but there's a different feel to it. These kids aren't as cute, aren't as likeable as Askewniverse characters. Jarod (played by Kyle Gallner, who has been busy in the horror genre lately - The Haunting in Connecticut, Jennifer's Body, A Nightmare on Elm Street) has been in contact with an older woman online who's willing to take on all three of them. The kids hit the road on their gangbang mission, into a world of horror tropes - dark night, fender bender, isolated trailer home...

The woman they meet up with is played by Melissa Leo, who just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Fighter and, as you can see in a clip that's online, she gives an excellent performance in this film as well.


The horror set-up continues as suddenly the extremist religious group becomes a big part of the teens' lives, with them being held captive by the Five Points Trinity Church, led by Pastor Abin Cooper. Like the real life church that inspired this story, this group isn't about love and forgiveness, Cooper preaches of hate and damnation to a congregation made up solely of his own offspring and their spouses and children. But Cooper takes it a step further - he feels it's his duty to punish sinners, particularly those who sin in sexual ways, and send them to Hell himself.

Michael Parks plays Abin Cooper, and is amazing and captivating in the role. We watch him give an entire sermon, I'm not sure if or how much it's been cut down since the Sundance premiere, but apparently at that time it was 18 minutes long. It doesn't feel that long. Parks draws you in and it doesn't feel any longer than your average monologue. The character may be bugnuts, but he's not ranting with eyes bulging and spittle flying. He's low key and charismatic, he's got a nice interaction with his family/congregation, he's even almost likeable at moments... while at the same time he's peppering his scripture quotes with de-humanizing hate speech. It's a disturbing scene, especially since there are little children in this group, hearing this talk and seeing two of the church's captives in the room with them - one strapped to a cross, another in a dog cage.


The third element comes into play and the story enters new territory. While a real Hate cult (I don't want to name them here, they already get plenty of the attention that they crave) inspired the Cooper clan, the third act is obviously inspired by the Waco siege of the Branch Davidian compound.

An ATF team, which is led by John Goodman (who is awesome, of course) and also features a very entertaining Kevin Pollak, arrives at the Cooper compound and circumstances lead to an extended standoff and shootout. It's been said that Kevin Smith can't shoot action, he's even said it himself, but that notion is dispelled here, as he and cinematographer David Klein shoot the hell out of people shooting the hell out of each other.

Kevin Smith has also said that Red State was his attempt to do a "Tarantino movie by way of the Coen brothers". There are Tarantino and Coen regulars in the cast - Michael Parks and James Parks, John Goodman and Stephen Root - and Tarantinoid gunfire and bloodshed, but the dialogue among the government workers is where I felt the Coen influence. Could just be me, but one scene late in the film specifically made me think of Burn After Reading.

It's the political area that people are touchiest about and conservatives are worried that this film is an attack on them. People can be easily offended when it comes to these things, but I don't think they should be by anything in this. Kevin Smith isn't a political crusader - his recent promotional appearance on Bill Maher's show was the quietest I've ever seen the man be, aside from when he was playing Silent Bob - and the title is a play on a term, with "Red" as a euphemism for blood. There isn't anything about political parties, unless I missed a reference under the laughter during the Burn After Reading-esque scene. I suppose if you're associated with the ATF, you could call shenanigans about some things.

But in the end, it's just an entertaining, genre-bending ride of a film. It's fast paced and seemed to move at the speed of one of the many bullets fired in it. This should lend itself well to repeat viewings. I can certainly see myself watching it over and over, I wanted to watch it again almost immediately last night and still want to right now.

The acting is great, which I've mentioned already and could be assumed anyway given the cast, but it's worth reiterating. I didn't even mention by name all of the actors I should have, like Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kerry Bishe, Betty Aberlin, and Ralph Garman as a cattle prod-wielding mute.

David Klein shot the movie digitally with the Red One MX and did some handheld work with a Canon 7D, and it looks great. There's no musical score and the film plays quite well without it, an ominious rumbling sound design standing in for music during particular moments.

Kevin Smith really stepped out of his comfort zone for this one and it paid off, as I think he delivered one of the best movies of his career.

There are nine stops left on the Red State U.S.A. Tour after tonight, so nine more chances for people to see the movie (followed by a Q&A) over the course of the next month. To see if it's coming near you, check

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