I was lucky enough to see Kevin Smith's Red State at an exclusive week-long run at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, where he was determined to speak, in person, after almost every single screening. Smith not only wrote, directed, and edited the film himself, but is determined to return to his 1990's indie film roots, and is distributing the film himself, and is, in many cases, carrying the actual film prints himself from theater to theater. Indeed, Smith is cleaving so close to his most recent project, that he has become part of the show, making sure to hold the audience's hands, and give a number of his notable anecdotes at every screening. He has always loved telling stories, and he responds positively to audience reactions. Smith has, essentially, become an effective gimmick in himself. And while you can see Red State through on-demand video services, and will soon be able to rent it on DVD, it's the Smith-in-person theatrical experience that will round out this little indie horror film for you.
At the engagement I attended, Smith spent a good 20 minutes of his post-show Q&A talking to the audience about how great it is to talk to the audience. So determined is Smith to prove that he can be a powerhouse marketing guru, that the film itself, at least for that first portion, fell by the wayside. I do find his hands-on approach admirable and interesting, and I do like how on-the-ground he is when it comes to communicating with his passionate fan base, but the movie critic purist in me subtly wishes he'd let the film fly on its own merits.
Which, it turns out, the film actually has plenty of. This is Smith's latest film after the by-all-accounts disappointing Cop Out, and his first non-comedy, and he proves to be something of a masterful low-budget genre director, as opposed to his usual reputation as a chatterbox hipster comedian. Indeed, portions of Red State are so chintzy, 1970's B-movie harrowing, that it starts to looks like an early film from John Carpenter or Wes Craven. It has a forward, gut-churning velocity that is rare in recent horror films, usually preoccupied with special effects or irresponsible scenes of torture. It's an often-funny, sometimes precious, but always kind of scary little flick worth a note. If this was Smith's first film, he would be touted as a new talent to watch out for.
The film follows a trio of horny high school boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Ronnie Connell) who, following the vague lead of an internet sex personal ad, trek a few miles out of their small, middle-America industrial town for a foursome with an older woman. The woman they meet is the tired-looking Sara (a very good Melissa Leo), who tempts them into her trailer, plies them with beer, and ends up drugging them, and taking them back to her religious compound. It's here that we meet Abin Cooper (the supremely creepy Michael Parks), the leader of a murderous religious cult, who speaks gently, but acts violently. Kevin Smith has said that Abin Cooper is openly based on Fred Waldron Phelps, the leader of the tiny Westboro Baptist Church, whom you may have seen in the news, doing morally reprehensible things, like picketing the funerals of gay people. The Cooper church in Red State sings old familiar hymns, has daily church services, and then kill off the gays right next to the lectern.
Eventually, the cops get involved (represented by the stalwart ATF agent played by John Goodman), and the film, in addition to its gut-wrenching horror, becomes a comment on Waco-like shootouts, which are just as much about blind allegiance as the hate speech of the church.
The central theme of the film seems to be the acceptance of homosexuals (there are a few gay characters), and Smith, known for a long series of films that are slightly twinged with gay panic, hasn't entirely escaped the ghetto of the gay joke; Smith seems to think that mere homosexuality in movies is still as shocking in 2011 as it was in 1994. But that complaint aside, Red State is still a thematically solid film that deals with extreme personalities in a mountingly extreme situation. Yes, there is a good deal of gunplay, and heads begin bursting like ripe tomatoes by the film's end. And yes, some people may die whom you do not expect to.
In his previous films, Smith has proven he is good with words, and can construct a delightfully vulgar, but emotionally insightful monologue that can be compared favorably to Richard Linklater. He has, however, never been – and he admits this himself – a master of the cinematic craft, often achieving a more workmanlike, utilitarian directing style. Hence his comedies have often been prodded by critics for being sparklingly witty and endlessly funny, but a bit drab to look at. However, with Red State, Smith has actually managed to find a style that falls somewhere between Last House on the Left and Slacker. He has never directed better than this.
You can get tickets to this special roadshow version of the film through Smith's own website, and it's likely, if you live in a big enough city, that he'll be through soon. As always, I promote the communal theatrical experience over any form of home consumption, but if you manage to see it at home, you'll still get a pretty good, and rather bold little flick from an experienced and talkative veteran indie uber-geek.