I have always been a fan of Kevin Smith and enjoyed all of his movies to some extent, although I still have not seen JERSEY GIRL which Smith himself also makes jokes about occasionally. I have been intrigued for quite some time about the possibility of Smith trying his hand at something darker because while I enjoy his comedic writing very much I’ve always felt his dialogue heavy sensibility would make for an interesting and reflective experience in a more serious and dark setting. RED STATE is precisely that; Smith’s script is very sharp and engaging and is acted impeccably by the great Michael Parks and the rest of the cast also performs admirably. There are plenty of shocks and thrills along the way and Kevin Smith’s writing has never been stronger, but there might be a few moments that leave certain viewers cold to the overall experience.
RED STATE begins with three high school friends Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner), who have secured themselves a sexual encounter with a woman (Melissa Leo) they found online. Jarod and Billy Ray convince Travis to ask his parents to borrow the car for the evening so they can drive out to meet her. When they arrive things take an unpleasant turn as they come face to face with Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the priest of an extremist church group that have anything but the safety of their souls on the agenda.
That’s basically just the setup because about halfway in there are more characters introduced that ultimately shift what had been a very dark and tense drama/horror/thriller into what I would best describe as an action/thriller. The film really does cover a lot of ground in its runtime and switches its focus from the three friends, to Abin Cooper and his family and to other characters in the third act. Some would call this structure confusing and unfocused but with Smith’s engaging and witty dialogue it’s always entertaining and kept me pinned to my seat.
RED STATE is a showcase of the many talents of Michael Parks. Parks has a very distinguishable voice that is perfect for the character he’s portraying. He’s a gifted entertainer that has a great control and awareness of the performance he is given and is always savoring the moment and feeding off the energy and grimness in the script. One moment he can be brooding and creepy the next he could be lovable and funny and a second later be intense and crazy. The constant shift of his actions makes for a performance that’s screen grabbing and unforgettable.
Michael Parks is not the only character putting on a good show but he is easily the most memorable. Melissa Leo is going to attract some attention due to her Oscar win for THE FIGHTER and she puts in some good work as well in RED STATE. John Goodman shows up as well and he does a great job as well even though there’s moments where he is shouting that weren’t as convincing or effective as when he is being more subdued. The three friends Braun, Angarano and Gallner are all very good; Angarano is actually involved a very well filmed house chase sequence. There is so many different plot points in the film that aside from Parks and Goodman everyone else only has a limited amount of time to shine.
The direction is very different from anything Smith has ever done. There are a variety of very good camera movements and effects that add to the mood of the film. The sound design is also very intense and raw; the midsection of the film involves an extended sermon delivered by Parks as Abin Cooper, where he walks around the room delivering a very long monologue and you can hear the floorboards creaking. The decision to not use a score was a very effective decision never giving the audience a clue as to when to feel at ease and when to prepare for a shock or scare.
As far as standout sequences go one of my favorites is an extremely fast, tense and claustrophobic chase sequence that takes place entirely in a house. The frenetic action has the tendency to make the audience lose track of who they are following and what exactly is happening. The sequence is brief, but filmed very effectively and left me wanting more. The first poster released looks a lot more effective after you’ve seen what is involved in the scene with the character under the sheet and I loved the buildup to the scene and the escalation of events throughout the film.
I don’t like to nitpick small details of movies that I really like and there’s nothing that was big enough in RED STATE to get up in arms about. There’s small aspects that I don’t think are as effective as the rest but they didn’t effect my enjoyment. Goodman is good but in the louder more chaotic moments his intensity didn’t quite fit the mood. It’s a few small details that were present that are brief and the rest of the film is so strong that it seems senseless to sit and pick things apart.
With RED STATE Kevin Smith has delivered one of his best films to date. The film is extremely well written, paced and performed and carries a tone that’s dark and tense with some of Smith’s humorous flair thrown in here and there. RED STATE effectively conveys and mocks religious extremes to a realistic and thought provoking effect. It’s a film that sits in your head and resonates for days after it’s over. Kevin Smith’s departure from straightforward comedy into darker material is done with tremendous skill and should delight Kevin Smith devotees and haters alike.