For months now, Kevin Smith has seemed like an angry guy: angry at critics who didn’t care for his last movie; angry at distributors for their wasteful release strategies; (rightfully) angry at Southwest Airlines for unfairly kicking him off a plane. So even though it doesn’t look like something by the writer/director of “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” perhaps “Red State” shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. It is an angry film.
A lot of Smith’s movies have been motivated by malcontents, from Dante in “Clerks,” who’s not even supposed to be here today, to Ollie in “Jersey Girl,” who resents the fact that he lost a job and home he loved and can’t reclaim. “Red State” amplifies that low-level disgust into white-hot rage. It’s the only thing that unites all the disparate groups in this unusual little movie. Horny teens, religious zealots, ATF agents. All very, very angry.
We start with the teens, and a scenario as close to a standard Kevin Smith movie as “Red State” ever gets. Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) are looking for some action and find an anonymous woman on the Internet willing to sleep with all three of them at the same time. Little do they realize the woman is Sarah (Melissa Leo), and she is luring them all into a trap set by her father, the ultra conservative pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). As quickly as the plot settles into a teens-versus-their-virginity comedy, the film swerves on you; now it’s a religious-themed horror movie with Cooper’s church of followers and inbred family members looking to send the boys to hell as sinners and sodomites. Then as quickly as the religious-themed horror movie appears, it vanishes too, so that the final act can make room for a field unit of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms led by Agent Keenan (John Goodman) as he investigates the Cooper Church. That would be a lot of plot for a six-hour miniseries; if you subtract its credits, “Red State” runs barely 80 minutes. It’s as if Smith, who’s publicly declared his intentions to retire from directing after one last film about hockey, decided to get every other movie he’s ever wanted to make out of his system in one fell swoop.
That makes “Red State” a busy movie, but not a boring one. To the screenplay’s credit, the film is full of surprising swerves and twists. To its discredit, all those swerves and twists don’t leave much time for the characters, who are all basically just chess pieces or mouthpieces. Both Parks and Goodman deliver memorable, didactic monologues that impart messages of hate and frustration from either side of the red state/blue state divide. Both actors are good, and Parks is disturbingly seductive as the, if you’ll forgive the pun, God-awful preacher. Still, neither man gets enough screen time to become anything more than a reservoir of righteous indignation.
That’s why I’m sort of surprised Smith is so exclusively selling “Red State” to his base of loyal followers. Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to market and distribute the film throughout the country, he’s released “Red State” on video on demand after a brief Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles and an international speaking-and-screening tour. Though the reviews from Smith hardcores have, not surprisingly, been ecstatic, it seems to me they would be the group most inclined to dislike this movie. “Red State” doesn’t look like a Kevin Smith project (though it was shot by his longtime cinematopgraher, David Klein) and with little vulgarity or pop culture humor, it barely sounds like one too. It is, however, a briskly-paced, slightly torture porn-y horror thriller. Yet the reviews I’ve seen from outside the View Askew Universe have been surprisingly harsh; maybe because Smith himself was so harsh on critics for trashing “Cop Out.”
Despite all the hype surrounding its release, “Red State” is neither the masterpiece Smith’s partisans claim nor the bomb his detractors insist. Stripped of both sides’ sermonizing, what you are left with is a rough and tumble little thriller, light on character, heavy on story, loaded with twists. It’s a solid version of the sort of all killer, no filler B-movie that often goes straight to home video. Or video on demand.