It’s an odd thing to say, but if you don’t find something to dislike in Red State, then there’s an argument that you’re not looking hard enough. Such is the nature of writer-director Kevin Smith’s intense, provocative and penultimate film, that it’s bound to have something that you want to pick holes in afterwards.
It’s only the second outright-independent movie that Smith admits he’s ever made (after the original Clerks), and he’s fused together lots of ideas, a few different movies, tipped his hat to some classics (hello Fargo!) and slammed it all together in a raw, compelling manner.
It’s a fascinating mixture. Red State is, by turns, inflamatory, derivative, unpredictable and compelling, an uncompromising collection of things you will like, and things you won’t. And while it has a list of problems, it’s one of the most unflinchingly interesting films of the year.
It’s a pity, in fact, that we even have to give it a star rating, because it’s one of those cases where any kind of score is folly. Just know that it’s by far the most interesting three star-scored film we’ve seen all year (it’s comfortably the most debated score we’ve had in the Den Of Geek shed all year).
The setup is really quite straightforward, and the opening is the closest to what we’re used to seeing from Smith’s screenwriting. Three high school friends are looking for sex with an older woman, and, naturally, there turns out to be an app for that. This eventually leads them to the door of Melissa Leo’s Sara. Which is where things take, er, a bit of a turn for the worse.
By this point, it all feels conventional, and in an early classroom scene, it actually feels a little like we’re being force-fed background information, if anything. But Smith is wise enough to keep his foot down, and the film gets far more interesting when the aforementioned trio find themselves in the clutches of the Five Points Church.
Led by Abin Cooper, (Michael Parks), the Five Points Church is an invisibly-veiled nod to the Westboro Baptist Church, and its extreme views and tactics. And once we’re within its walls, Red State catches fire.
It’s been said in lots of places that Michael Parks’ performance is quite brilliant in Red State, and his utterly magnetic initial monologue is a masterclass from an actor in total control of his craft. I wished the camerawork had been a little less fussy at this point, simply because Parks alone was utterly, utterly compelling in this, the quietest and most striking part of the film.
As the film changes gears later on, Parks’ character takes a lesser role, but the devastating impact of his prolonged introduction is hard to shake. Sadly, as with Sam Rockwell in last year’s Moon, Red State is likely too low a budget and too genre-focused a film for Parks’ performance to get the mainstream awards attention it deserves. It’s certainly worth pushing for, though.
Yet Parks’ character is just one part of a jamboree of ingredients that contribute to Red State. At one stage, as Smith suddenly steers his film in a wildly different direction, it doesn’t feel a million miles away from a Bourne movie. Then it changes gear again, as John Goodman suddenly becomes the focus of the movie’s attention. It’s all a little destabilising at times, and it does at times feel uneven and not quite in control of itself. There are odd moments that don’t seem to make as much sense, and each segment of the film leaves a few cracks behind.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Red State sticks in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Warts and all, it leaves plenty to digest and to think about, and the decision to keep it within a 90-minute running time is one of the most important that Smith has made. He’s got an awful lot to say, and the confines of his production are no barrier to him saying it.
The film, too, is served by some strong, raw performances, with Melissa Leo and Kerry Bishe in particular among the other standouts. Even the smaller roles in the film have some pertinence to them, too, and it’s hard to fault any link in the casting chain.
But this is Smith’s show. And Red State is bold, interesting filmmaking, from a writer-director willing and able to throw pretty much everything at the wall.
It might be that a lot of the noise surrounding the film has come from the unconventional manner in which Smith has tried to sell it, but all that’d be worthless without something at the core that’s worthy of all the noise. Red State is. It’s confident, risky, messy and schizophrenic, almost daring you to pick it apart. It also just happens to be Smith’s most interesting and brave film in some time, in much more than just one sense.