Review: Red State


I’ve been hearing about Red State for years now. I remember fondly when the Weinstien’s turned it down a few years back. And now, the movie is out for all to see. Well, if you can make a screening that is.

Kevin Smith has used Red State as his experimental baby for his new distribution method. And depending on how you view that move, it may influence how you see Red State. But this is a review of the movie, not the distribution method. And you know what? Red State is a decent flick.

Red State
Director: Kevin Smith
Rating: R
Country: USA

The movie starts off as any Kevin Smith movie does: with dick jokes and sex talk. Three teenagers are gearing up for a night of group sex with a random internet woman. And from here, all similarities to Clerks leaves the building. The boys are drugged, and brought into the Church of Five Points, a thinly veiled representation of the Westboro Baptist Church. In an absolutely chilling reveal, we’re introduced to Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the deranged pastor of the cult, with a brilliant fifteen minute monologue. Not often does a long monologue look good on paper, and I’m sure this one looked bat-shit insane in the script. But leave it to Michael Parks to deliver. Parks’ portrayal of Cooper is terrifying, chilling, and brilliant. And you can see why Smith wanted to do these Academy qualifying screenings here in LA, Parks deserves some awards for this performance.

But Parks isn’t the only good actor in the movie. John Goodman plays an ATF agent tasked with taking down Five Points Church, and everyone in it for domestic terrorism. And his conflict brings in a lot of the film’s political messages. When should excessive force be used? Who should be punished for their crimes? Do the children deserve the same treatment as the adults? A lot of these messages have been brought up in other movies a few years back, and were better executed. And that’s the thing about this movie: it seems like it’s two or three years too late to really make a point. If Smith had released this thing back in 2009 like he wanted to, this would be a way more relevant movie than it currently is. Sure, the Westboro Baptist Church is still awful and full of awful people. But no one really cares about them anymore; we’re not as shocked by what they do. And the point of this movie is to showcase how vile and awful those people are.

While the themes and commentary of Red State are a bit late to the party, the cinematography and editing are some of the best of the year. To think that Dave Klein (cinematographer) was the same guy who lit Clerks all those years ago, lit Red State makes my heart all warm and fuzzy. Klein and Smith really hone in on the look of the film, with some great chase sequences that rival the Bourne movies, and a look that’s in your face and gritty as hell.

I’ve always admired Kevin Smith as an editor, even though his work is nothing groundbreaking. But with this, Smith continues his trend of doing things differently. Jump cuts, axis crosses, the movie is rife with all sorts of techniques that would be called “mistakes” by film school professors. But those professors can suck it, as Smith brings a new sense of paranoia to what could have been a very blandly edited movie. The look of the chase sequence would mean nothing if it weren’t for the editing Smith brought to the table. This is one of the few movies that incorporates these incredibly quick, “MTV-style” cuts and uses them well.

But the movie is not without its faults. Michael Parks and John Goodman bring their A game to the movie, but a lot of the other actors are pretty forgettable, or just there. There’s the law enforcement people, the church folk, and the teenagers. More characterization would’ve gone a long way to making their inevitable demise more impacting. And while I liked the ending, some will be off-put by the deus ex machina moment that comes at the end of the gunfight.

But the movie’s biggest fault is its lack of consistency. Sure, the flick is really dark and horrific, but the tone isn’t consistent at all. Right before a really tense moment, someone will crack a joke, and the theatre erupts in laughter. There’s nothing funny about this movie past the fifteen minute mark. And if you’re laughing during the movie, you need to have your head examined. It’s like Kevin Smith had to write in a couple jokes to ease the tension, which is the worst thing to do in a tense movie like this. Keep that tension high, your audience will thank you for it.

In the Q&A after my screening of Red State, Kevin Smith said something about the movie that I think is entirely true. “It’s a parlor trick,” he said. And Smith is absolutely correct. Red State is less of a movie, and more of a parlor trick of good things. Be it the acting, the cinematography, or the editing, Smith has a hell of an experience for us. 

Jenika Katz: I am not a politically correct person. I made a joke about baby rape right before this movie started. That said, Red State made me feel physically ill. It was a constant barrage of terrible, terrible things happening on screen, and what was meant to be comic relief felt like inappropriate tidbits from Clerks tossed in at random. I don’t mean inappropriate in that they’re politically incorrect: I mean that the jokes feel like they’re completely out of line with the tone of the rest of the movie. I didn’t smile once after the first fifteen minutes. I couldn’t smile. The jokes might have been funny in another context, but the movie was so absolutely horrifying that I couldn’t laugh. This movie is not a comedy, but it feels like it’s trying so desperately to be one that it’s hard not to focus on the horribly-placed jokes. They really detract from the overall seriousness of the film. On that note, with this subject matter, one would assume that there is a strong message, but the only one really there is something half-assed about the government being corrupt. Nothing clever or eye-opening, but it’s presented as if it’s something extraordinarily thought-provoking. None of the characters are likeable, but the acting is fantastic. Michael Parks gives a fantastic performance as faux Fred Phelps, somehow taking a fifteen minute sermon and making it absolutely mesmerizing. The performances can’t make up for the rest of the film, however, and the movie overall feels like Kevin Smith’s pretentious attempt at a magnum opus that makes you wish he’d quit while he was ahead. 51 – Average

Alex Katz:  Despite making the best looking movie of his career and a shot in the arm from Michael Parks’s Oscar-caliber performance, Red State is proof that Kevin Smith has finally run out of interesting things to say. It is a schizophrenic mess, inconsistent in tone and pace alike. What little message the film has to say is undercooked, uninspired, and uninteresting. While I applaud Smith for trying something as uncomfortably out of his normal wheelhouse as possible, Red State is ultimately a failure. 50 – Average

Sean Walsh: I want nothing more than to speak volumes on how good Red State is but I can’t. I gave it a 6.0 because it was exactly what it says: okay. It wasn’t bad, but I certainly don’t have any strong feelings towards it going the other way either. I equated it the night I saw it to steamed chicken and green beans I got from the Chinese place down the street: there was stuff I liked (the green beans, or John Goodman and Michael Parks) and stuff I found bland and tasteless (the chicken, or pretty much everything else). Red State is, if nothing else, a movie. It has Kevin Smith’s signature crudeness, a brutality to it not found most other places (maybe for good reason), and a climax that both enraged and bewildered me. Go see it if you get the chance, it definitely gives you something to talk about. 60 – Decent