Sundance 2011 Review: Kevin Smith's RED STATE


Kevin Smith's Red State has more people talking than any other film of this year's Sundance Film Festival. The history behind this project is a bit drawn out, but the most recent relevant points are as follows:

  •  Smith has been feuding with critics and announced his refusal to screen Red State for the press, making it extremely difficult to see the film at this festival. (There were only two screenings, and one of them was last night's world premiere, so Dr. Venkman and I arrived at the press office 45 minutes before it opened two days ago to secure tickets to this morning's screening.)
  • This rebellious mentality caused exactly the reaction Smith wanted - angry bloggers taking to their keyboards and giving his small $4 million movie all the publicity it needed to become a cult hit before it even played for an audience.
  • After the premiere, Smith announced he would be taking the film on a 15 city road tour across the country, charging 6-8 times the regular cost of a normal movie ticket but including a Q&A at every show. (Dates here.) He plans to release the movie in theaters in October of this year.

So, with the hype machine powered off and everyone all caught up: how was the actual movie? I've been hearing a lot of people say they didn't care for it, but even with its touchy subject matter I found the movie consistently entertaining. It's certainly not the best movie I've seen at this festival - or even the most entertaining, for that matter - but for most of Red State's run time, it's a compelling sociological study of an extreme fundamentalist group, three kids who are caught up in their trap, and an ATF agent trying to diffuse the situation.

If you think you know what to expect because you see the words "written and directed by Kevin Smith," think again. Mallrats, Clerks, or Dogma this ain't, and though it occasionally carries Smith's penchant for self-indulgence (we'll get to that in a minute), the movie could not be more different than the filmmaker's prior work. Not quite the traditional horror film it claims to be, the most frightening aspects of Red State come from the calm demeanor of the fundamentalist characters; they spew hatred in conversational tones and as an audience, we totally believe that these people are 100% committed to their extreme beliefs. Credit Smith, then, for pulling creepy performances from his actors (again, we'll get to that in a second) and also for staging action scenes more effectively than he's ever done in the past. This is not a typical Kevin Smith film, and when violent moments occasionally invade the film, just for a second you may think you've slipped into a Tarantino flick.

Michael Parks convincingly slips into the skin of a maniac, a Fred Phelps character who is the leader of what essentially is a small cult. At first we think they just protest funerals and piss people off with their liberal use of free speech, but quickly we discover there is something much more sinister going on under the surface. Parks is bombastic and sharp, eerie and foreboding; he gives far and away the best performance of the film. It became an even more impressive acting feat to me when, after the film, Parks and Kevin Smith appeared for a brief Q&A and Parks' demeanor was so quiet I wondered if it was an act itself. In real life, the man barely speaks above a whisper, and the entire audience was straining to hear what he was saying. In this film, he fires bullets as effectively as words, with both doing equal amounts of damage.

The supporting cast was solid as well. Melissa Leo (coming off her excellent turn in The Fighter) was good as a devoted church member, and John Goodman was more than adequate as Keenan, the ATF agent tasked with bringing the church down. The younger members of the cast - Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun - were fine as a group of typical sex-crazed teenagers enticed by an online hookup scenario who get much more than the ad promised. Stephen Root (who appears in another Sundance film, Cedar Rapids) gave a troubled performance, and even Kevin Pollack chimes in near the end as another ATF agent. (Most of the cast of this film will return for Smith's reportedly last directorial effort, the hockey comedy Hit Somebody.)

But try as he may, Smith simply can't resist the allure of his own written words. A few "Kevin Smith-esque" scenes of dialogue just don't quite fit in this realistic world, and because Smith himself edited the movie, what would normally have been trimmed down scenes remain in full (or if not in full, than they run on too long). An early sermon from Parks' character seems to last 20 minutes of screen time (although I'm sure it was more like 10), and a concluding scene in the movie - after a lot of time elapse since overly verbose wordplay - brings it back worse than any other point in the film. I'm sure this is one of the reasons many people aren't digging this movie, and while it did bother me because it didn't fit organically in this story, it didn't strike me enough to change my perception of the entire movie.

Red State delves into some interesting thematic territory but kind of - and forgive the pun here - cops out at the end when it fails to explore those ideas to the fullest extent. You'll know what I mean when you see it, but if this film had ended a certain way, I think I would have absolutely loved it. As it stands, I admire Smith for making an entertaining film outside his comfort zone, but I would have cut down a lot of the preachier aspects of the film to make it a bit tighter. We get the point he's trying to make, but he insists on driving it home over and over again; even in dialogue-heavy films, sometimes things are better left unsaid.

What do you think about Red State? Are you looking forward to it? Are you jumping on the Kevin Smith hater bandwagon? Let us know in the comment section.

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