For those who only want to read about the Q & A, skip down to the ninth paragraph.
If “Red State” were a first film by some unknown to premiere at Sundance, I suspect it would play as a promising debut, full of the messy logic and unpolished cinematic technique that often accompanies filmmakers bursting with ideas and not enough space to put them all. It would also earn its director a considerable amount of attention for its constantly shifting narrative leavened by some sharp dialogue and a few even sharper performances.
Since “Red State” was directed by Kevin Smith, it isn’t that simple, though it should be, not only out of fairness to the final product, but because the film is at its best when taken on its own terms. “Red State” doesn’t take place in Smith’s well-known View Askew universe, but it doesn’t exist in our reality, either, stumbling out the gate with a premise that doesn’t make sense as a trio of sex-obsessed teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) are lured to the trailer of a woman (Melissa Leo) they believe is a swinger and two drugged beers later, discover they’re in the clutches of a group of Christian extremists who plan to make an example of them, built in the mold of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church.
Even looking past the inexplicable interest of the church in torturing a group of straight dudes, the inclusion of a poorly developed gay sheriff (Stephen Root) who inadvertently paves the way for an ATF showdown at the Five Points Trinity Church is flat-out terrible.
However, once inside the compound, “Red State” starts to take shape as it settles into the rhythm of a siege thriller, armed with the introduction of its two most interesting characters, the enigmatic reverend Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and the seen-it-all ATF lead agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), raising the material to the sardonic pitch Smith clearly intends. Despite the copious bullets traded from both sides of the church’s fence after the local authorities get wind of gunshots coming from Five Points, the film doesn’t set up exactly set up as a faceoff between the two men, but instead the ideologies that govern the warring tribes, each man guided by principles they can’t possibly understand entirely yet pitted in a battle that quickly escalates into something inevitable.
Such a description may be overselling what Smith actually delivers, but the execution is strong enough to let those ideas linger as Cooper and Keenan witness the decimation of their respective troops in a way that constantly engages. During the post-screening Q & A, Smith compared the film’s unsettling tone to a game of musical chairs where a viewer sits down and he winds up flipping the chair over so the legs slide up into the hindparts. That description is not too far off.
Parks and Goodman, and Kerry Bishé, the lone character to experience some kind of transformation as the Five Points member not content to die after deciding she must help the church’s children escape, keep the ball up in the air for much of the film, aided by Smith’s disregard for the conventional rules of who lives and who dies and a surprisingly effective casualness to the film’s graphic violence.
But what makes it a lean and mean entertainment doesn’t translate into making “Red State” profound, which by the way Smith organizes the closing credits into divisions between “sex” (the three teens), “religion” (Parks’ disciples) and “politics” (Goodman’s government agents) it would seem was the goal. If anything, the film’s allegorical elements might be better applied to the divide between the hardcore fans of Smith’s work and the people Smith feels have turned against him (namely in the press), each side quick to the trigger and equally quick to retreat to the familiar.
After watching “Red State,” I wanted more films from Smith, not less and it was frankly the reinvention I was expecting from Smith’s last film “Cop Out,” where he didn’t write the script, but was armed with $30 million of Warner Brothers’ money to make the kind of populist entertainment mocked by Randal in “Clerks” with the intention presumably of freshening up the buddy cop movie while lining his pockets. Instead, the wit was confined to the Harold Faltenmayer score and the collection of scenes was a torturous 107 minutes that felt as though Smith was determined to prove his doubters correct, one-upping them to make something so disconnected it almost felt avant garde. Of course, the funniest thing about “Red State,” his most artful film to date, is that he’s made a movie about a cult that ultimately will play to one of his own creation, given the unusual (and relatively successful) distribution of it, and unlikely to reach a wider audience who could appreciate the writer/director spreading his wings.
It was telling Friday night when nearly every person at the film’s 6:30 show at the New Beverly, considered a cinephile’s mecca in Los Angeles, raised their hand when asked if they’d never been to the theater before. (As it turns out, neither had Smith.) The screening was the first of the film’s weeklong “Oscar consideration run” (which, after actually seeing Parks and Goodman’s work, doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did on paper), and Smith, a self-proclaimed “whore for this flick,” admitted it was only the second time he hadn’t seen the movie with the audience because after returning from a trip in Canada, he needed to get laid (quickly confirming that he did). He then set up an alarm clock app on his iPad, giving himself 35 minutes to take questions and went well past it to dish on the film’s tour, its casting and nearly anything else the audience wanted to know.
This led to anecdotes about pushing Parks to sing one hymnal too many (the actor/musician volunteered to sing in two of his scenes and when Smith suggested another, he growled, “what is this, a fucking Elvis movie?”), exemplifying an axis crossing (a cinematic rule he proudly claimed to break three times in “Red State”), and praying before every flight he takes (“just to be on the safe side”) to the chagrin of his atheist wife.
Smith also shared the roundabout story of casting Goodman, who wasn’t available initially, leading the director to use his backstage time at Comic-Con to ask Samuel L. Jackson to consider the role right before the Nick Fury alter ego was about to take the stage for the 2010 Avengers panel. Jackson apparently liked the script, but when Smith couldn’t meet Jackson’s $250,000 fee, he tried offering up two paintings worth more and Jackson’s agent intervened to ask how one gets a commission from paintings. (Second choice Jon Hamm was said to be eager to read the script since he liked Smith’s previous films, but once Hamm did, word was passed down from his agent that “this isn’t like your previous films. As Smith joked, “If it had been Cock-Knocker in Jay and Silent Bob 2…”)
Meanwhile, Smith’s pal Ben Affleck only recently requested to see “Red State,” partially because he was casting his next directorial outing “Argo” and after being slow to respond with his reaction, Smith bugged Affleck’s producing partner Chay Carter to find out what he thought, to which Affleck simply said “I’ve cast half your cast, what do you think?” (Goodman, Bishé and an actor Smith said hadn’t been announced will all appear in “Argo.”)
The first show of the evening ended with Smith recounting the story of the film’s premiere at Sundance with “our promotional partners” the Westboro Baptist Church there to protest. He’s told the story before of how he got friend and fellow filmmaker Malcolm Ingram to hold a sign reading, “Dicks Taste Yummy” to counter the “God Hates Fags” signs of the Phelps’ clan, but said his favorite moment of the festival was seeing the exact moment it caught the eye of Megan Phelps, who he subsequently invited to the film’s premiere in Kansas City with the intention of asking whether her nod of disapproval in Park City was because she was against the sentiment because of her religious beliefs or because she thought “dicks aren’t yummy.” With that, he dropped the mic to get ready for the 9 p.m. show, one of two shows it will be playing the rest of the week and contrary to what the filmmaker may think, it isn’t just the Q & A that’s worth the price of admission.
"Red State" will continue its Oscar-qualifying run at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles through August 25th before the film is available on VOD for two weeks starting on September 1st and DVD and Blu-ray on October 18th.
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