Over the years, Kevin Smith has made a name for himself directing such provocative and riotous comedies as the infamous Clerks and last years miscalculated Cop Out. His latest directorial effort, Red State, is an entirely different ball game. Not only does it see Smith returning to the guerrilla filmmaking style that made him a household name, but it also sees him tackling subject matter outside his typical comfort zone. This is how freely he works when not having to deal with Hollywood studios and experienced actors – something that, despite its often incoherent execution, is very interesting to behold.
Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), respond to an online invitation for sex with a middle-aged woman (Melissa Leo) in a nearby town. Upon arriving at her rundown trailer in the middle of nowhere, they’re drugged and kidnapped by an ultra-fundamental Christian sect, which may be more dangerous than it publicly appears. As events within the sect’s private compound escalate, Special Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) and his ATF troops are called in to control the situation.
When broken down to the nitty-gritty, the story behind Red State is incredibly provocative and tightly wound. Smith’s main problem is that he’s a very undisciplined writer, not used to remaining within boundaries and telling one coherent story. Instead, he needlessly over populates the screenplay with characters and plot strands, failing to provide much of a background to the events surrounding those taking place on screen, or even to the people involved. The same could be said for the film’s social commentary. Though it begins as an interesting comment on religion and fanaticism, Smith later foists in a personal attack on the US government and its response to “terrorism” post 9/11. He twists both the narrative and the characters to express his views, and the original, inherent ideas are lost. Nevertheless, these issues are only moderately distracting. They prevent full investment from the audience, but the dialogue heavy scenes and the film’s many twists and turns seduce the audience into getting swept up by the action and not paying too much attention to the overcomplicated structure.
Smith’s knack for direction rises above his misjudged screenplay and, correctly, chooses to mimics that of the perverted and impetuous events playing out on screen. Handheld camerawork is used in unison with a creepy score to elicit the sadistic nature behind the sect’s kidnapping of the three teens and the confinements of the compound they’re imprisoned within, while the fast-paced editing style conveys the unpredictability of the events that transpire in the second half. For someone who has become quite detached from this faux style of filmmaking, Smith certainly knows how to implement certain cinematic tricks to keep audiences on the edge of their seats right through to the final credits, which makes the shoddily constructed script all the more disappointing.
Thankfully, in addition to the brilliantly executed shocks, the real skill behind Red State’s effectiveness lies in the actors’ ability to inhabit their on screen personas and mould them into characters that’ll infect the audience’s skin from beginning to the bitter end. Michael Parks excels in bringing a hushed menace to sect patriarch Abin Cooper, thanks in no small part to the domineering camera angles that frame him throughout. The trio of Angarano, Gallner and Braun are solid, but are too sketched out to make much of an impact. Leo as a devoted disciple and Kerry Bishé, a young woman caught between loyalty and survival, on the other hand, provide peerless support to Parks’ unperturbed lead, while Goodman gives a believable and vulnerable turn as Keenan, making him the closest the film has to a redeeming character.
Red State represents a new, more mature Kevin Smith, one interested in exploring and rivalling current universal issues and rediscovering his aptitude as an introverted filmmaker. The messages hidden within may be a little too overpowering for such a small film and the execution a touch too prickly, but Smith’s unrelenting vision prevails to deliver a trenchant, seducing and thirstily acted thrill ride.