Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2011

Born again

Kevin Smith's new beginning as a filmmaker is a mixed bag

Red State
Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Kerry Bishé, Nicholas Braun and Kevin Pollak
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Now playing on VOD
(out of four)

The fuss about Red State isn't really about Red State at all. Kevin Smith made sure of that - made sure that coverage of his new film would begin and end with coverage of Smith himself, every word written about it framed around a discussion he initiated last year when he took to Twitter and reinvented himself as a petulant child.

This is old news for anyone who follows the Twitterverse, the View, Askewniverse, or movies in general, but it can't be ignored now that Red State is finally being rolled out to theatres cable boxes everywhere. After all, the man did expose a global conspiracy perpetrated by film critics the world over to, uh . . . not like some of Smith's movies (namely Cop Out).

And having blown the lid off that one, he turned his attention toward religious fundamentalism, terrorism and hate crime - subjects that might have courted some controversy of their own if Smith hadn't decided to direct all the focus toward his own artistic plight.

And despite any complaints he might have about the press coverage for Red State, Smith has enough self-awareness to know he was making himself the story all along.

But all that ultimately has nothing to do with whether Red State is any good, or whether it's the kind of rebirth that could put all his Twitter nonsense permanently to bed. Going from the bawdy, self-aware comedies from which he made his name (and his brand) to politically laced, low-budget horror film is, I think, an admirable attempt at reinvention. There are few (if any) of the defining characteristics of his previous two decades. Though the film could be thought of as a companion piece to Dogma - on grounds that they're both religious satire - the style and intent are so radically different as to render the comparison moot.

At times during Red State it feels like Smith has graduated (for lack of a better word) to being able to make a horror film as mediocre as dozens of other horror films that hit festivals and video on-demand every year. The fact that you wouldn't watch it and immediately think of it as a Kevin Smith film is part of the point, I suppose - but that lack of personal familiarity is undermined by the fact that it seems all too familiar in every other way.

This, too, could be seen as either a good or bad thing. On one hand, it blends in seamlessly with the kind of horror-tinged drama that it's emulating - and doesn't come off as a cheap imitation, but the real thing.

On the other hand, most of those movies aren't very good. One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Smith is lack of technical prowess; Red State seems to be something of a response to that, with the director trying to show that he can make a film that looks like it was shot by a professional. But in doing so, he gave up some of what had worked for him in the first place.

That said, there are moments in the film that surprise us, throw a wrinkle into our expectations not only of where the story is going, but in what Smith's intentions with Red State really are. I'm thinking of three moments in particular, but I can't discuss them in detail without giving too much away. Know that one of those moments will be unmistakable - it's the one with the really loud noise.

One other thing Red State has going for it is a legitimately odious villain - in the form of Abin Cooper, a fundamentalist preacher that makes Fred Phelps look reasonable. Michael Parks embodies the character's cold evil and wry Southern charm, his diatribes against the "wicked" generating a bit of extra chill.

We find out, through some clunky exposition, that Cooper and his family/congregation not only frequent gay funerals to protest, but are in fact the cause of many of those funerals. Indeed, most of Cooper's rhetoric during the film's extended sermon sequence is directed at snuffing out gay culture.

Which doesn't totally explain why, of all people, he chooses to entrap three horny straight teenagers who thought they were about to get laid and proceed to make an example out of them. (A more courageous film would have actually included a gay character instead of simply the bumbling, closeted sheriff, but that's a whole other argument.)

The film changes narrative gears a couple of times, as those teenagers don't turn out to be nearly as relevant as we initially thought. What starts as a horror scenario turns into a hostage film, and that eventually gives way to something of a dry, satirical epilogue. Red State is messy, that's for sure, but there are things I like about it - even if Smith, in his first foray into drastically new territory, doesn't know quite how to get his points across.

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