By The Playlist | The Playlist January 24, 2011 at 6:24AM
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