Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: "Red State", a film by Kevin Smith

(Fan Poster by Scott Macumber/PixelBoom Designs)
I had the pleasure of seeing "Red State" in Austin on 3/28/2011 and thought I'd write up a review. Now, I’m going to admit right up front that my review is tainted. I am a fan of Kevin Smith. Not just as a film maker, but as a person, and that colors the way I feel about his work. I mean, how can you not root for someone that calls himself “Fatty McNofly” and does not mind making himself the butt of his own jokes? He embraces who he is with a zeal that I admire and wish I could emulate. 

I also appreciate how he never left his friends behind. He has put so many of his childhood friends to work both in front of and behind the camera, and he has given many of them a platform to be heard via his SMODcast network (in some instances probably saving their lives). And now, if SMODcast Pictures works the way he hopes, he is going to extend that same helping hand to the independent film making community at large by providing a home for independent movies that could find no succor elsewhere (but with the caveat that you must provide proof that you have been turned down by EVERYONE else before they will distribute your film. As he said in his post screening Q&A, you don’t want SMODcast Pictures to release your film; you go to them because you HAVE TO.)

Wow, I’m kind of rambling like the man himself. Let me get back on track and get to the review of “Red State”. Understand that I’m not going to go into a lot of spoilers or discuss specific scenes at length. I’m going to provide an overall impression of the film so as to not spoil the fun come October 19th, when the film goes into wide release. Now, on to it…

First, a brief synopsis: “Red State” begins with three boys doing what boys do best… trying to get laid. They have a “date” set up with someone they met online, but not everything is as it seems when they arrive at her trailer to “get up to the Devil’s business.” They are soon trapped in the middle of a situation that escalates beyond their wildest fears. There is a lot going on in the film including murder, foot chases, and a firefight with the ATF.

If you are at all familiar with his work you can read that synopsis and see that “Red State” is a wild departure for Kevin Smith. Yes, there are laughs. Yes, there are dick jokes (one involving a reference to Coke can-sized penises that really tickled the Austin crowd). But there is also suspense, drama and plenty of violence. As a matter of fact, after about the 15-minute mark there are very few laughs and way more of the other stuff.

The look of the film, as a whole, is also new for Mr. Smith. If you are a fan of his, you’ve probably noticed that most of his films use a very bright, almost cartoony, color palette (especially evident in Mallrats and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back). But here, the look is austere and bleak. It’s very washed-out, and the palette consists mostly of earth-tones. It works very well and really helps set the mood.

Also, gone is the patented “Kevin Smith 2-shot”. David Klein, the director of photography for this film (as well as many others for Kevin Smith) was let loose, and boy did he take advantage. The camera work is very dynamic, and at times downright unsettling. There are scenes where characters are running through a claustrophobic basement, with the audience seemingly perched right on their chest, peering into their faces and seeing their fear in a very personal way. And at one point a character runs up the stairs in a bid for freedom and the camera spins and turns upside down, making a scary moment worse by introducing dizziness. It was very effective in conveying the uncertainty in their adrenaline fueled rush to escape, and David Klein is sure to see tons of doors open up for him in the industry.

Kevin Smith has said many times that he is not so much a director as he is an editor, and that on this film he let his actors act while he mainly tried to stay out of their way. He was confident in his cast to deliver the goods (which they do) and instead of telling them what to do, he kept his eyes open, watching for moments that he wanted to capture, always doing so with his editors cap firmly in place. You can really see that in this film, as the editing is tight and the performances don’t feel steered or forced in any way. (On a side note: apparently the editor’s cap never comes off, as several minutes were trimmed after the Sundance screenings. I never saw that cut, but I did listen to Mr. Smith’s “Red State of the Union” podcast. On there he showed several clips to his in-house audience that listeners didn’t get to see, but did get to hear. Watching the film I noticed one cut right away… Michael Parks as the big baddie Abin Cooper is delivering his sermon and gets an “Amen” from his flock, including a prominent one from a very little girl named Melanie. In the scene as I heard it on the ”Red State of the Union” podcast, Cooper directly addresses this little girl after her “Amen” and talks to her for a minute. This dialog was cut from the film when I saw it.)

That provides a nice segue for discussing the cast. Michael Parks, as I mentioned, plays Abin Cooper, the maniacal leader of the Five Points Baptist Church. Mr. Parks’ career for the past few years has mainly been as a character actor, playing various roles mostly for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, with his most memorable being as the sheriff at the beginning of “Kill Bill”. He lets loose as Pastor Cooper, and really digs in deep. He is very convincing, and about the only complaint I have is that he at times talks with such a low growl that I had difficulty understanding him. But it works for his character so it’s okay. I’m sure he’s going to see more work after this, and if not it’s criminal. He really is very good.

Pastor Cooper's flock is populated by Melissa Leo, who plays his daughter Sarah, Ralph Garman as her husband Caleb, and Kerry Bishé as their daughter Cheyenne. Also in this twisted family tree are Jennifer Schwalbach, Betty Aberlin, James Parks, Gary Sievers, and a gaggle of kids playing various grandchildren to the crazy Abin Cooper. All of these actors acquit themselves well, but I’d like to take a second to recognize Kerry Bishé.

I fear that when this film sees wide release, her performance will be overshadowed by Michael Parks (or possibly Melissa Leo due to her recent Oscar win). This is very sad because the character of Cheyenne is a tough sell on the audience, but she actually made this person who might have been seen as nothing more than evil actually seem human. While watching I found myself hoping that she’d succeed in getting the “babies” out of the house and manage to get away from her mom and grandfather. She succeeded in garnering sympathy from me even as she was talking about the “Zionist media” and spouting hate, because I got the fact that she was brainwashed and I felt sorry for her. Ms. Bishé did a wonderful job that I hope isn’t overlooked.

The three young men that provide the catalyst for the story are played by Michael Angarano as Travis, Kyle Gallner as Jarod, and Nicholas Braun as Billy Ray. All three of them are very good, with special note going to Kyle Gallner. He had the most challenging role of the three and very easily went from horny, to terrified, to angry during his character arc. If he can escape the “brooding youth” roles I can really see him making something of himself as an actor. He reminds me a lot of a young Joaquin Phoenix.

I’d briefly like to mention Stephen Root, who plays the “sheriff with a secret”. He is known mostly for his comedic work on shows such as “Talk Radio”, but he is really good in this. He has one moment in particular when his world seems to be crashing around him and it is painful to watch. He pulls it off beautifully, and with nothing more than facial expressions we see him go from scared and desperate to realizing there just may be something he can do about his situation. It was really something to watch.

Now, last but certainly not least are Kevin Pollak and John Goodman. They play ATF agents tasked with serving a search warrant on the Cooper clan, who are being investigated for trying to purchase automatic weapons. Needless to say it doesn’t go as planned and a bloodbath ensues.

Kevin Pollak’s role is a small one, but he takes advantage of his time. He’s very funny and provides some levity in an otherwise dark part of the film. Hopefully there’ll be more meat on the bone for him in “Hit Somebody”, Kevin Smith’s next film.

John Goodman, on the other hand, has a very big role. He plays Joseph Keenan, the man in charge of the ATF group serving the warrant. His job is tough, and it’s made even tougher when his superiors hand down an order he doesn’t agree with. Mr. Goodman brings a lot of sympathy to this role as he plays the audiences conscience, and he handles that responsibility well. He also is tasked with summing the whole thing up at the end in a classic, dialog-heavy Kevin Smith scene, and he dispenses the dialog easily and conversationally. He’s really very good in this and I look forward to seeing him in the next film, as well.

“Red State” is a fun ride. It plays VERY fast and seemed like it was over as soon as it began. It is edited so tightly with no air left in it, and this just adds to the claustrophobia and stress the audience feels. As you’re watching it you get the impression that you can’t look away or you might miss something, even as things are happening you don’t want to see.

Kevin Smith really stepped outside his comfort zone on this and it pays off in a big way. I hate that he isn’t going to explore this territory again because I’d really like to see what he could do next time, but it’s not to be. I’ll have to enjoy this one, and plan to do just that when it’s released theatrically later this year, and then again (repeatedly) when it’s released on Blu-Ray. 

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