Kevin Smith’s personal anecdotes are more entertaining to me than any of his supposedly comedic films. I like his attitude, and I like his perspective, but I don’t like his writing. When his writing is not pandering to below the lowest common denominator or disproportionately praising George Lucas’ weakest films, it is still generally a set of superficial observations about malaise or adulthood dressed up as profound insights. But Red State is a curious case.
Red State, the story of a group of teenagers’ run-in with a fanatical and violent cult, is totally unique among Smith’s films. For one thing, unlike nearly every Kevin Smith movie, it’s quite good. It’s tense, interesting, and there are only two or three minor actors who don’t give excellent performances. Further, it is one of the few films in his filmography which do not take place in the meandering boredom of his so-called ‘View Askewniverse.’ Red State fails as both an action movie and a horror movie, but it succeeds as an interesting film.
It is worth noting, before anything else, that I am hardly sure that Red State should be considered primarily a Kevin Smith movie; as this video explains, Smith gave the actors total control over their performances. The consequence of actors controlling their parts is accountability, which results in most or all of the cast members truly giving their all to present their characters with authenticity. But Smith’s influence as writer-director should not be downplayed too far, and I would wager that the linked video is exaggerating Smith’s hands-off approach to some degree.
Many of the most interesting details of the film, after all, come from the writing, which comes across with a Burn After Reading-esque realistic irony. Tropes are subverted and traditional movie logic is the butt of some fairly dark absurdist comedy. Still, the film’s original ending (in an earlier draft of the script) would have killed some of the film’s most interesting ambiguities. If you don’t mind spoilers or have already seen the film, you can read a brief account of the original ending on this IMDB page. For that reason, some of the success of this film can be chalked up to art from adversity, as it was ultimately the film’s (relatively speaking) rather small budget of $4 million that caused the original ending to be dropped.
Smith’s writing of the fanatical cult leader character, portrayed excellently by actor Michael Parks, should also be praised, as aspects of that character and his community have been confirmed as accurate and familiar by former members of the Westboro Baptist Church. The consistency of the beliefs of the various characters with their actions lends just enough believability to the proceedings to keep the viewer disturbed.
Clearly, however, Smith has not exactly worked out a formula for success here, as a more recent feature that saw Kevin Smith and Michael Parks working together, Tusk, is a mediocre mess. Perhaps, with Red State, everything just aligned well, with Smith picking the right subject matter for unflinchingly dark absurdism, doing a decent job with the writing, having any errors corrected by genuine and professional actors, and having budget constraints prevent complete hamming up of the plot.
I would like to close by clarifying that I do not think that Red State is an incredible movie, or that anyone should drop everything and go find a copy. It is not exceptional enough to make me question in puzzlement how the involved writer-director could possibly have produced it, as another film does. I certainly do not think it’s as good as Burn After Reading, despite its similarities. Red State is hindered by inelegant twitches toward unintentional comedy in what is meant to be a serious movie, poorer performances by some of the younger actors, and an aimlessness through the lengthy climax scenes which harms those scenes’ intended tension (the middle third of the movie is much more tense).
Red State would probably be the worst film in the career of a great writer-director, but instead it seems to me to be far-and-away the best film of Kevin Smith. It is violent, interesting, entertaining, and mostly very well-acted. It was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films of 2011; it is my favorite Kevin Smith movie (a distant second is Chasing Amy, behind which a further distant third is the original Clerks); and it is well worth a watch, if you get the chance.
A True View Askew: