This review was originally published September 6, 2011. It is being reposted for the film's home video release.
Maybe it's the absence of a shit demon, but I'll take Kevin Smith's "Red State" over his previous church satire, "Dogma," any day. Neither film is particularly smart in its parody or commentary, save for a clever jab here and there, but I am grateful enough for a Smith movie that isn't filled with raunchy jokes and other forced humor, or more complicated than it needs to be. He can keep on doing this sort of hammy B movie mix of horror and action thriller, as far as I'm concerned, and I'll be more inclined to see it than the next goofball farce deriving from his childish mind. For the same reason I'd be more intrigued to read a 12-year-old's serious essay on religion, politics and other heavy topics than the same kid's attempt at sketch comedy, I was fully into the unsophisticated but genuinely invested plot of "Red State," which wasn't undercut with Smith's usual cheap wisecracks and buffoonery.
I don't actually think Smith is personally as immature or unintelligent as a preteen boy, it's just that with most of his movies he seems to aim for that lower audience. He'll never be highbrow, by any means, and he can't write above his own average capabilities, but that should be his main attraction and eminence. It certainly was an appealing aspect of his debut film, "Clerks," that he was a regular guy expressing his skewed views through the dialogues of a few regular-guy characters. "Clerks" is plenty funny, but that isn't it's main objective or distinction. It's a drama of mediocrity and the significance of such in this world, at least as Smith saw it.
It was unfortunate that following his move in the direction of more mature writing (albeit with a still-naive perspective), with "Chasing Amy," he spent the next decade putting out broad movies more akin to "Mallrats" than what he was best suited for. He's almost a fiction parallel for Michael Moore. Each was best when he was more ordinary and humble, working out personal ideas and issues on a commoner's playing ground. As much as I'd love to see Moore stop acting the expert liberal leader and reduce his scope, or at least try something different, I'm happy to see Smith working with both subdued and fresh terrain in "Red State" rather than the clown and donkey show material he's been giving us.
The two ironies present here are that Smith is working with very big ideas in "Red State," which tells the story of a small fundamentalist church and its eventual violent showdown with the ATF, and he's also making fun of the nature of belief and the insane things it does to people, all the while being a man of strong conviction with a soapbox-perching attitude for his own followers and against his own critics. The big ideas, however, are dealt with thinly, with all parties being as basic a representation of their side as can be with the representation still holding. While the performances by Michael Parks and John Goodman are superb their characters are still merely characters. Smith has never been one for realism, even in drama, and even employing great actors he can only direct them as instruments for his words.
My favorite thing about "Red State" is how Smith inhabits each main character, with a narrative process that reminded me of the way Agent Smith overtakes and possesses pawns in "The Matrix." As if trying to outdo the perspective shift of "Psycho," he begins the film with us following a teenage boy (Michael Angarano), who we believe to be the protagonist, then constantly leaps us into the positions of other individuals, including the boy's friend (Kyle Gallner), a preacher (Parks), his virginal granddaughter (Kerry Bishé) and a federal agent (Goodman).
This could have just been done as any other ensemble picture without a singularly focused narrative, but Smith seems to want to almost stand behind each player on the board, making us always conscious of their words and actions being prompted from his consideration of what these people would do and say (I should clarify that this isn't a multi-perspective character piece in the way, say, "Rules of Attraction" or "Go"are either -- nothing is replayed from others' POVs; it's something different entirely that has the feel of that effect). It helps that, as with "Clerks," no character in "Red State" is apparently of especially higher intelligence than he is.
Because "Red State" is not a realistic depiction of anything, let alone a minimal version of the Waco incidents, nor is it any kind of authority on fundamentalist religion, government agencies, horny teenagers, closet homosexual sheriffs, marijuana grow houses, left-wing teachers or cult compounds. It is just Smith's ideas about these things and the most simple concepts associated with them. He may not be directly identified with them, the way he easily related to his guys in "Clerks," but that is what's fascinating. He pulls the individuals in "Red State" to him and makes what he can of their connections, because he is indeed an everyman artist.
Of course, whatever shortcomings Smith has in his ability to get inside the minds of these other personality types are likely to be interpreted as problematic to his critics, and anyone looking for something of greater comprehension. I don't always need comprehension, which can often be really predictable, as is a film by an auteur working with his usual, familiar material. I never knew where "Red State" was going, and I commend Smith for that. They tell writers to work with what they know, but that doesn't mean Smith needs limit himself to dealing only with fellow slackers; it also means he can play with what he knows of things he does not know everything about.
One thing I couldn't help thinking about during "Red State" is that its material and genre is so out of Smith's typical territory yet would be so appropriate for a number of other 1990s indie filmmakers. Partly the environment, partly the actors, partly the themes, partly the Grindhouse atmosphere, partly the subtle dark humor, all made me wonder about the film's plot as handled by the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Could maybe Lars von Trier order an Obstructions project in which all these directors have to remake "Red State" as their own?
"Red State" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: "Burn After Reading"; "Higher Learning"; "Doubt"