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Josh Reviews Kevin Smith’s Red State

As I wrote recently in my review of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, for the first decade or so of Kevin Smith’s film career I was a huge fan.  I still have a lot of love in my heart for his first run of films: Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.  Things got a little wobblier beginning with Jersey Girl, though.  The recent Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the first Kevin Smith film I have unabashedly enjoyed since 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.  Even when I wasn’t loving his films, for the most part I did still make a point to go see any new Kevin Smith film, hoping for one that would recapture what I’d used to love in his movies.  But there were a few I’d missed along the way.  Red State was one of those; I’m not a horror movie fan, and so the idea of Kevin Smith leaving his comfort zone to make a horror movie was not a pitch that appealed to me.  However, for years I’ve been sort of curious as to what Red State was all about.  After enjoying Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, I decided to finally go back and fill in this hole in my viewing of Mr. Smith’s filmography.

The story of Red State begins when three teenagers decide to follow up on an online conversation with what they think is a single older woman offering to have sex with them.  Unfortunately for them, they’ve been ensnared in a scheme by a group of extreme Christian fundamentalists, who have decided that the time has come to take action against sinners.  When the local law enforcement gets wise to what is happening in this Church compound, the situation quickly escalates into a Waco-like violent siege…

Red State is not at all my type of film – I wrote above that I’m not a fan of horror movies, and Red State did not change my mind on that — but it is exceedingly well made.  I was very impressed!  Red State is easily the best directed movie of Kevin Smith’s career!  Sometimes I’ve found the directing in Mr. Smith’s films to be very basic – for example, I noted in my review of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot that I felt that the film had a flat look that seemed somewhat amateurish.  But Red State looked terrific!

The filmmaking was impressively gritty and raw.  I was sucked into the story, and I was impressed by how skillfully Mr. Smith was able to build up a very intense and suspenseful story.  There is some gruesome violence in the film, as well as a well-staged extended action sequence in the third act, when the ATF begins the assault on the Church compound.  I know this film was made for a low budget ($4 million, from what I have read online), and while the seams of that occasionally show, I was impressed by how large-scale the third act got.

The best aspect of Red State is how cool it is to watch Kevin Smith’s always wonderful dialogue given life by what is by far the best group of dramatic actors in any of his films.  The film is owned by Michael Park, who plays the Fred Phelps-like Pastor Abin Cooper.  Mr. Park delivers an electric performance.  A huge chunk of time in the middle of the film is devoted to a lengthy sermon that the Pastor gives to his Church.  This could have brought the film to a screeching halt, but Mr. Park is absolutely mesmerizing.  I thought it was the best sequence in the film!

Also great in the film: John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Kevin Pollak and more.  This is a great cast!

The film’s structure is very interesting, as the point of view character is constantly shifting. At first we’re following the three boys.  Then we shift to the Church members, and in particular the film focuses in on Pastor Cooper.  Then we shift again to John Goodman’s ATF agent character.  This is a risky structure; without one main character or characters to follow through the story from start to finish, the audience’s attention could wander.  But Mr. Smith made it work.  It helps that each time the focus shifts, we’re in the hands of a great actor delivering great dialogue.

My only complaint about the structure is that I felt the great Stephen Root was mostly wasted.  When he was introduced in the early going as the local Sheriff, I thought that he’d wind up being the main law enforcement character facing off with the Church and Pastor Cooper.  But that’s not how the story played out.  I’m all for a story taking an unexpected turn, but I just wish Mr. Root had more to do after those first few scenes.

Mr. Smith was able to stick to his guns and make a straight horror movie.  He doesn’t try to soften the blow by sticking in a lot of jokes, nor does he allow any character to wink at the audience in a way that could deflate the story.  As I wrote at the top, I’m not a big horror movie fan, and so this sort of tense, violent movie isn’t really my cup of tea.  But I applaud Mr. Smith for accomplishing what he set out to do, and in such style.  Red State is not a movie I’ll be rushing to rewatch any time soon, but I’m very glad to have finally seen it!

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