Publisher’s Note: Red State is available on VOD beginning today. This review was originally published after a Sundance screening.
Kevin Smith has a major persecution complex. Maybe anybody that works in the industry for 17 years and reads as much coverage about himself as Kevin Smith does would have a persecution complex. But the rest of them aren’t as vocal about their insecurities. Kevin Smith airs that shit out. He takes the things he reads personally, and he lashes out at those who say them. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anybody that shit-talks and bad mouths as many people as Kevin Smith has over the years is going to alienate a few of them.
Unfortunately, over the last year, he’s managed to alienate the very people who write about his movies, a small legion of people who are just as vocal and, in most cases, as insecure as Kevin Smith is. Since the release of Cop Out, it’s been douchebag vs. douchebags, and we all end up looking like petty little shits.
The irony here is that, as much negative publicity as it’s brought both sides, when it comes down to the actual film, it hurts both the critics and Kevin Smith. The writers have built up so much animosity toward Smith that their reviews are never going to be judged fairly. Hell, I wouldn’t have judged their reviews fairly, not until I’d seen the movie and could judge for myself. And you probably shouldn’t judge mine fairly, either. There’s a history there, even if it’s mostly in my own head. But it’s hurt Kevin Smith even more because favorable reviews are going to be judged the same way: Anybody that loves Red State will be labeled a Kevin Smith fanboy, a sucker of Silent Bob’s cock.
The worst part is, if Kevin Smith had just shut the fuck up from the beginning, and had our side not egged him on, and if we all simply allowed the thing to speak for itself — res ipsa loquitur, motherfuckers — Kevin Smith would’ve come out way ahead. Red State is a great fucking flick. Not that you’re going to believe me, nor should you. And while I’m not the ultimate arbiter for anyone but myself, I came out seriously impressed. Impressed because Red State is not the Kevin Smith movie anyone would expect; impressed that it’s a grown-up movie; and impressed that Smith has come as far as he has as a filmmaker. He made a fucking grown-up movie, folks, one with themes instead of rants, one with substance instead of dick jokes, and one with goddamn performances instead of friends fucking around in front of a camera.
It’s the performances that really sell the film. They are brilliant on top of brilliant. Maybe it even helps not to think of this as a Kevin Smith film, but a John Goodman film. Or a film that stars one of the best male character actors around in Stephen Root. Or the best female character actor in Hollywood, the Oscar nominated Melissa Leo, who — along with Michael Parks — delivers performances that transcend Kevin Smith.
In Red State, Tarantino and Rodriguez regular Michael Parks plays Pastor Abin Cooper, a Fred Phelps nutjob who does more than just protest funerals of homosexuals. He and his family facilitate those funerals by murdering the “pillow biters” themselves. In true “To Catch a Sinner” style, a trio of high-school students — Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, and Michael Angarano — answer an Internet ad to show up at a trailer home for a threesome with an older woman, Sarah (Melissa Leo). Instead of getting vagina’d, however, they get drugged and taken to church service for ritual sacrifice.
That’s where we learn how truly motherfucking evil Abin Cooper is, and Parks sells his sermons with the sleazy charisma of Jimmy Swagger, the pure evil of Fred Phelps, and the deliciously creepy bloodlust of Norman Bates. It’s an outstanding performance by any measure, not just in a Kevin Smith film, and everything that Melissa Leo brings to this deranged, Bible-thumping family is awards-caliber gravy.
But where the government and the Patriot Act is involved — and the ATF, led by John Goodman, is called in here for a Waco-like showdown at the Cooper compound — there truly is no good and bad, and that’s what makes Red State almost rare for a so-called horror film. It eschews good versus evil and boogeyman versus virgin in favor of morally righteous versus morally corrupt. It’s the innocents that are the collateral damage.
I went in to Red State expecting a low-budget, grainy horror film featuring a couple of Jay and Silent Bob stand-ins rehashing Dogma between gunfire. But it’s an expertly made film, edited together well with a decent pace and, believe it or not, actual cinematography. It’s easily the most accomplished work of Kevin Smith’s career as a director, and while there is a certain wordiness to Red State, it’s more than refreshing in a genre dominated by jump-scares, obsessions with faux-moodiness, breathless chases, and teenagers sacrificing themselves to save the pretty blonde. There’s actual dialogue and real world motivation here; isn’t that what we’ve been craving in our horror films for years?
I didn’t expect to that I’d be able to sneak into Red State here at Sundance, and only managed to do so through sheer dumb luck. So I read a few of the mixed reviews after the premiere last night. Several felt hypercritical, downplaying the positives and picking at the flaws, as though guided by a need to hold a $4 million horror film up to the same standards as Raging Bull. No shit, Red State has flaws. Most films do, but in Red State, Smith overcomes them to deliver a film that should play very well even outside his own base. It’s serious; it’s entertaining; and at times, it’s fun.
Still, I’m sure the handful of skeptical critics were honest in their assessments, but in light of some of the personal exchanges I’ve seen between these very same critics and Kevin Smith, I couldn’t help but wonder if the way those reviews were framed was colored by some of those harsh exchanges. LIkewise, this favorable review could be called into question, too; I could just as easily be accused of overcompensating to offset certain Kevin Smith remarks (“second-rate website,” my ass). Hell, Kevin Smith was probably right to admonish folks for reading reviews; there’s too much bad blood between the two sides to take any of us seriously. The only thing that matters here is and that should matter is the movie, and while I think you will be pleasantly — maybe even shockingly — surprised by how good it is, it’s definitely a movie you should see for yourself and make up your own goddamn mind.