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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Red State

Kevin Smith is no stranger to controversy. In fact, most of his career has been bathed in hordes of media attention over some of his more notorious features - from Clerks' potty mouth to Zack and Miri Make  A Porno's banned original posters. Say what you will about the man's talent but make no mistake, Kevin Smith is not marketing movies, he is marketing himself. Right now, I'm struggling to think of another director that receives the same obsessive fanbase as Mr. Smith. Through various means on online outlets, he regularly updates them with everything going on in his private life. Through regular live tour dates across America and Europe fans can even literally reach out and touch him with their fingertips. Why he has inspired such an intense and loyal following is beyond me; he has, like most directors a fairly mixed filmography. A few hits, a few duds and outside Clerks absolutely no great movies. I feel that the reason he commands such a fanbase is down to relatability. Kevin Smith wants you to think he is one of you. Some regular small town dude done good. He talks movies, makes dick jokes and openly expresses his views just like anyone of your mates. This comraderie however can only extend so far. When he first came on the scene all those years ago, I found he had a fresh compelling and unique voice in cinema. Recent years have seen him grow stale, almost as if he is running out of ideas. Even his direction shows no signs of improving. He openly admits to being a writers director, not a directors writer. As a result he has never been able to mature as a film maker or even explore different avenues in the art. Or rather unwilling to do so. This inability to ever grow has flummoxed me over the years. There will always be those who love the man, but the 90's was a long time ago now, and his oeuvre shows signs of waning. Anyways, in what seems to me like a desperate ploy to garner media attention at this years Sundance, he held an auction for this film in question. Somewhat surprisingly however it was he himself who purchased the rights to sell and distribute Red State for a mere $20 and offered to take it on a screening road trip of sorts. Talk about enterprising. Many observed that the man was finally imploding, that his rallying of fans to come out and support the film smelled of desperation. Especially after many of the reviews were less than glowing. Well, in a rather surprising turn around of my initial preconceptions, I actually rather liked Red State.

The film is a heavy handed and not too subtle attack on the fundamentalist Phelps family, ie, America's most hated family and just how religion can drive people to do some of the most heinous things in life. When talking the film up at the script stage, Smith spoke of how it was a horror movie. This is not really true of the final product; it may start as darkly tense genre picture that flirts with torture porn, but then it swiftly morphs 180 degrees into a full on 'Waco' style siege film. We begin with three horn dog teens looking to pop their cherry. Looking online they see an older lady willing to oblige them not very far from where they live. Somewhat excitedly they arrive at her door only to be drugged and kidnapped. Their captors are religious zealots, hell bent on violently ridding the world of homosexuals and other such 'blasphemers' that don't fit in with their view on what the Bible says about the world. So far, we are in standard horror movie territory, except we don't actually care about the three guys. In fact, the film doesn't really have any character you can cheer for; something I'm sure Smith fully intended. So as word swiftly gets out at what  these evangelical terrorists are up to, the FBI intervene in a hail of gunfire and brimstone as the film suddenly switches gears. It's clear we're in a Kevin Smith film (the dialogue is frequently Smith-esque) but one very different to any we have seen before. The man must be applauded for trying something completely different to anything he has ever done before and for the first time fighting the urge for non stop fart gags and to allow himself to develop as a filmmaker. The film is very nicely shot throughout and has a pleasing gritty and grimy handheld aesthetic which chimes nicely with the various themes the film discusses. It must be said that Smith doesn't aspire to subtlety and lays out his views for all to see like a hammer to the head. All those years ago he explored religion in Dogma; here he full on attacks it. It is just a shame that the film doesn't more acutely handle this, as a better grasping could have yielded very impressive results. This seems like Smith chickened out ever so slightly and doesn't ever fully commit to the themes he puts forward by the climax. Sure, the typically charismatic Michael Parks delivers a lengthy sermon (thankfully cut down from the reported 20 minutes from the original Sundance cut) but a little more care and precision would have hammered home just what Smith - the writer wants to say. There are many that won't appreciate it. As stated earlier, it isn't the most tenuous experience you may have all year, but it is memorable. It has an almost Grindhousey feel to proceedings and have plenty of gore soaked action in between all the firefights. With this Smith surprised me. After Cop-Out I suspected the man had lost the passion. His View Askew-niverse had lost charm long ago and he seemed a man desperately searching for a voice he had lost. With this, it seems he has found it again. Hopefully by his next project (his mooted swansong Hit Somebody) he can continue to grow and confidently expand upon what he has done here. Basically, he needs to get out from the cushion of all his fans and show everyone he still knows how to make a film without relying on himself to sell it. As a proud independant filmmaker he will discover their are plenty more ways do so, than exhausting his celebrity.

Verdict: 6/10
A sometimes too bluntly delivered tone threatens to overtake proceedings and if Smith had shown just a bit more faith in his script then this could have been a glorious comeback. As it stands it is a successful change of direction and one in which for the most part is an interesting oddity. Not as bad as initial reviews might have pegged it, but not anything truly remarkable either.

"Red State" Trailer

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