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Sundance '11 Review: Kevin Smith's 'Red State' An Ambitious, Greatly Flawed Stab At Horror

by The Playlist
January 24, 2011 6:24 AM
16 Comments
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From our reviews correspondent over at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, James Rocchi.

Samuel Johnson said -- in other, less enlightened times -- that seeing a woman preach was like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs; the noteworthy thing about either is not if they happen well, but rather that they happen at all. Kevin Smith's "Red State," premiering at Sundance, is the director's 10th film, his first independent film since "Clerks" debuted here in 1994, and his first film that is not a pure comedy. It is also a very ungainly dog, wobbling on its hind legs, and stumbling often.

Smith's film starts with the small-scale stakes and situations of a '70s horror thriller in the bloody vein of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," digresses for 20 minutes of sermonizing, breaking the exposition up with gunfire and action and then clumsily contorting itself into a conspiracy-minded screed that roughly tries to emulate the '70s cynicism of, say, "Three Days of the Condor" or, less flatteringly, "Capricorn One." It has more visual flair and panache than anything Smith's previously made, but this is, again, faint praise at best.


Three teens in a small town head out for some anonymous group sex with a willing woman who their ringleader (Kyle Gallner) has found online. This is not the kind of town where that kind of thing happens; the most interesting thing for miles is a local hard-core Christian group known for public protests at funerals ... And so "Red State" goes from "Psycho" to Westboro to Waco, changing points-of-view and tone with an abandon some will find invigorating and others will find irritating. I'm glad Kevin Smith wants to make movies that aren't comedies; it's too bad he felt he had to make all of them at once.

Michael Parks plays the Fred Phelps-styled preacher, and if one thing about "Red State"'s clang and clutter stands out, it's his performance. Parks has the poisonous magnetism of a rattlesnake, uncoiling his madness slowly before he strikes. But it takes more than a great bad guy performance to make a great horror film; Smith has gotten as far as he has with his comedies because it is a writer's genre more so than it is a director's. Horror is the genre of a director -- pacing, feel, shots, editing -- and Smith's skills are not up to the task, which may in part be why he turns it into a fairly flat shoot-'em-up action film when his bag of tricks goes empty (and as he runs out of characters to kill for shock value), before unveiling an impressively literal deus ex machina to wrap things up with a tidy bow.

More could be said of the film's further flaws, and one could dig for its further merits, but some space should be devoted to Smith's abominable showmanship. After touting for weeks that he'd auction the rights to "Red State" off to distributors at Sundance immediately after its Sundance debut, Smith instead spoke about how indie distribution is broken before selling the film to himself for $20, explaining that he'd market "Red State" to his fan base via the internet, touring the film with the cast as a premium experience before distributing it to theaters for a lower ticket price later in the year. He also announced the upcoming hockey tale "Hit Somebody" would be his last film. After that, "I wanna help you sell yours."


In other words, Kevin Smith is trying to paint the kind of four-wall distribution that exploitation titans like William Castle pioneered in the '50s as a revolution and intends to shrink inward and provide boutique products to people who want them, giving up on even trying to reach new audiences or attain new heights. And so, with a film about a church-cult and a charismatic publicity-mad leader, Kevin Smith will now make movies custom-cut and crafted for Kevin Smith fans, launched with an attention-getting series of stunts and deliberate provocations. Tonight, the irony of 'preaching to the choir' has never been more achingly sharp, and Smith's stances and sermonizing have never seemed more blunt or dull. [D] - James Rocchi

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16 Comments

  • Frank Montes | February 3, 2011 3:53 AMReply

    Critics are useless. How many times have you seen a movie that was "best film of the year" by all critics and you came out thinking it was ok. Just go see a movie cause it caught your attention. F*** who directed, wrote, or produced the film. If you like the actor and the story looks like something you might like, go see it. Do you really need a critic to tell you what to ike or dislike. F*** this guy and anyone that does the same job. Just enjoy films for what they are - a chance to get away from the daily routine.

  • Daniel | January 25, 2011 5:41 AMReply

    Kevin Smith strikes me as the Sarah Palin of Hollywood. The more you point out either one's legitimate flaws, the more their acolytes perceive you as attacking them, and the more it validates their image as martyrs. Fuck 'em both. Red State looked terrible from the trailer.

  • Christopher Bell | January 25, 2011 1:39 AMReply

    Easy, pal. For every Kevin Smith that doesn't need a review, there's an "Alamar" or a "We Are What We Are" or a "Marcy Martha May Marlene" that benefits wildly from any sort of critical coverage, negative OR positive. Surely you don't think cinema starts and ends with Kevin Smith.

  • Thomasr | January 25, 2011 1:09 AMReply

    The best thing about this review is how it plays perfectly into Smith's hands.

    Critics are an irrelevancy and I guess that hurts.

  • First and last-time reader | January 24, 2011 10:51 AMReply

    touting for weeks? Are you sure he was or was it you, the fucking media machine? I hate all you useless critics. People can form their own opinions, we don't need yours and I don't understand why it exists? Get a real job 'professional appreciator'!

  • Leo | January 24, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    He's also offering his fans a chance to become filmmakers­!!! That's the real story!!! Why is everybody ignoring that?! That should be headline news!

    http://wp.­me/p1gK9Y-­er

  • WritersBlock | January 24, 2011 7:56 AMReply

    And, in converse, I have never read a more achingly dull review of an Independent film in my life. At least the critic's opinion wasn't lead in by a typical, overstretched grasp at an impressive relative metaphor or analogy.

    Oh wait....

    The moral of the story, kids?

    Critics don't like critics who don't care about critics.

  • Brace Face | January 24, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    But what will ThePlaylist think of it at the end of the year? Either love it or hate it, depending on what other journalists and bloggers write.....right?

  • Bob Morton | January 24, 2011 6:31 AMReply

    Hey All, see Todd McCarthy's review over at Hollywood Reporter.

  • anon | January 24, 2011 5:40 AMReply

    Kevin Smith sucks so much that James couldn't add any further depth to this critique.

  • Andrew | January 24, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    *of "media bias", etc. Fucking proof read next time, Andrew.

    Anyway, great review. Forget the "hater"-haters.

  • Andrew | January 24, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    If I can find a review of Red State that isn't immediately followed by blanket dismissals or "media bias" and "haters" from Smith's sycophantic followers, I'll eat my own anus.

  • Klesla | January 24, 2011 3:12 AMReply

    why does any space need to go to be "devoted to Smith’s abominable showmanship?" some of us non-"industry critic" folk don't care about that and are just curious about the movie. I could give two shits about "four walling" or if you're mad Kevin Smith won't talk to you and let you visit his set.

    honestly, this barely is a review you basically just type the minimum needed so you can get to your Smith-hating and clever little pun about preaching to the choir at the end.

    I'm not really a big Kevin Smith fan, but if anything, the nonsense surrounding this movie has made me annoyed with the people whose movie writing I read online everyday. I was kind of going along with the writers bitching and thinking Smith was loosing it but reading a review like this, I'm not so sure. Wonder how the movie is...

  • Anton Sirius | January 24, 2011 3:11 AMReply

    Dear me, the Smith fanboys certainly rushed to his defense in a hurry...

  • Dirk. | January 24, 2011 2:40 AMReply

    The review works better as a cheap hack job on Smith, rather than a legitimate critique of the material.

  • Michael | January 24, 2011 2:27 AMReply

    I don't see anything particularly wrong with this critique. It sums up the few good points of Red State and hits all the bad ones as well. Such is the job of a review.

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