Red State (United States, 2011)
Directed by: Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman
It’s been a persistent criticism – or, at least, observation – of Kevin Smith that he isn’t a particularly visual director, and indeed the man himself has admitted in the past that he self-identifies as a writer first, and sees filmmaking as merely one mechanism by which he can get his stories told. His films made in the 1990s can each be described rather simply as expansive dialogue and static camera work, and if you don’t like Kevin Smith as a writer you’ll probably find nothing to like in his first seven or so films, because they sure are no visual wonders.
But given that comedy is a genre where even badly-directed films can be somewhat successful if they’re funny enough, Smith has never had particular reason to explore the limits of his ability as a director. He’s carved out a sizeable cult following of people who couldn’t care less that he’s not Terrence Malick, and for over a decade he seemed almost entirely unwilling to climb out of the happy little rut he’d dug himself into. He had a slight flirtation with evolution when he made his first non-slacker movie, Jersey Girl, but when it bombed he quickly retreated to familiar surrounds and made Clerks II.
And now, after making two comedies that sucked, that even most of his own fans disliked, he has moved into another genre altogether: the straight-up horror film.
In horror, directorial choices are paramount. A horror film lives and dies by its pacing, its lighting, its editing, and the quality of its performances; all elements that are steered by the director. If Kevin Smith wanted to test his mettle as a director he sure picked the right genre, and though Red State is not without its flaws it certainly shows that he is no one-trick pony.
Religion and the Christian church have found themselves in Smith’s sights once before in Dogma, but the disconnect between the comedy and religion parts of that film resulted in something truly terrible. Seeing a giant poop monster wreak havoc in a strip club is great if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s not worth having to sit through seeing Linda Fiorentino humourlessly wax poetic about why Kevin Smith believes in god.
But Red State sees Smith looking outwards, to a fundamentalist Christian cult whose religious views are based heavily on Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church and whose living arrangements call to mind the Branch Davidians compound of Waco, Texas. He avoids making too many statements about the religious views of fundamentalist churches (besides presenting their views in fairly accurate summary, making it easy to understand just how batshit crazy these people are), and uses their compound merely as the setting for his horror tale: three high-schoolers get drawn into the church to be sacrificed as sexual deviants, and a standoff between the cult, led by the charismatically insane Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), and the ATF, led by world-weary agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), ensues.
The film careens along at a cracking pace, Smith directs with confidence and flair, and Dave Klein’s cinematography is dank and gritty. These three things you could never say about Smith’s previous films, but true they are with Red State. There are some marvelous Steadicam chase sequences, and a number of shots use body-cam – a camera mounted to the actor’s chest, with the camera pointed at their face – a disorienting and visceral technique used to great effect in Requiem for a Dream. But more than just visual tricks, these techniques serve the tone of the film wonderfully, and although the film is horrifically violent (with a dizzying number of characters falling to exquisitely bloody demises) it is not without subtext.
Red State has a lot to say about religion and politics in post-9/11 America, in particular the dichotomous relationship between those in power – be they pastor or politician – and the ordinary people they’re supposed to represent. Goodman’s line towards the end of the film, “there’s no limit to what people will do when they feel entitled”, brings together Smith’s stinging criticism of the modern American political and religious landscape in a way far more effective than his own previous efforts, and perhaps even the efforts of more fancied “serious” filmmakers.
It’s not perfect by any stretch – the beginning is badly overwritten and the ending seems tacked on – but Red State is the work of a filmmaker with his back against the wall, and one of the better horror films of the past few years.