Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Red State"

Red State - Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman - Rated R

Anton Chigurh would fit right in with this film.

Kevin Smith has been a self-proclaimed non-director for years. He has consistently commented that his films (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) were not terribly cinematic but rather dialogue-driven comedies. This is partly true as his early work featured very few camera movements. There is nothing wrong with still camerawork, but Smith never had much of a visual style. A viewer was much more likely to pick up on a Smith film from listening to a couple of minutes of it than they were from seeing how it was shot. With Smith’s first attempt at a non-comedy, Red State, he has found a style and it is very effective.

Red State is about the Cooper family, an extreme church group from the Midwest (think the Phelps family from the Westboro Baptist church but violent and heavily armed) and their run-ins with the government and some local teens. This film is better seen going in as fresh as possible, so the plot description will be left short. In fact, it would be very difficult to describe the plot of this film without giving much of it away, anyway. To say that Red State doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure is an understatement…and that is a compliment. The film jumps around and benefits from the movement from character to character.

The narrative juggling of the film is accentuated by the editing. Smith’s early work had a very standard, slow look. Red State stands in stark contrast. The film seems to be in a hurry. There’s no time to wait for a character to get up from a desk to exit a building. Instead, a series of superfast cuts shows his short journey in a couple of seconds. The quick cuts of the film can be a little distracting at times, but for the most part they serve as a style to the film and they keep things moving nicely. The pace of Red State is one of its strongest aspects. The overall length of the film is refreshingly under 90 minutes, too.

If Kevin Smith trying out something other than comedy with a bit of style doesn’t pique your interest in this film (though it should), then the cast should put you over the top. Michael Parks (Kill Bill) is the standout as patriarch Abin Cooper. His sermons and mumbled singing add plenty of creepiness to the film and his overall presence keeps the film interesting. John Goodman gets to yell and be reserved in a fine role. Melissa Leo continues her strong streak as Abin’s daughter. The three teens (Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, and Michael Angarano) get to start the film off on a relatively light note and they all do fine.

The varied cast (I’m leaving out multiple smaller roles) allows the film to go in many different directions. In other words, Red State is a movie capable of surprising the viewer. There are some shocking moments throughout the film. The action is brutal and easy to follow and sometimes it is very sudden. Smith, as it turns out, has a bit of an eye for a decent shootout and a foot chase.

Red State is not perfect or anything, though. It may simply stand out because Kevin Smith made it and it is a very unexpected film from a director like him. It’s hard to separate the fact that he made it so it is impossible to say if knowing this is a departure for him makes the movie more impressive. Surprising as the film may be, there are aspects that don’t jive so well. Stephen Root’s character, while aptly portrayed, came off more as a quick caricature than an actual character. And he seemed to delve into a bit of oddly placed slapstick humor later on. Dark, slapstick humor, but it still felt strange. And Michael Parks’ sermon was nice and creepy, but may have gone on a bit too long. But that is only because his character had been set up with exposition multiple times before he was rightfully introduced. The film may have been more impactful if there had been fewer scenes in which characters blatantly talked about the Coopers.

Minor problems aside (emphasis on minor), Red State is one of the better films of the year thus far. It may be more famous for its release strategy (I watched it on demand, but Smith had been releasing it on his own, taking it from city to city on a tour), but it is a film that deserves to be looked at on its own merits. It is entertaining, darkly funny at times, shocking, visually appealing, and many times it becomes thought provoking as it asks the viewer to decide what is right and what is wrong. And, religion is involved. The film could be divisive because of that fact alone. But if you just look at this as a film, you should end up being affected one way or the other by Red State, and few movies do that these days.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I bought this on demand for 24 hours and I felt the need to get in a second viewing before it expired.  I suppose that says as much about my opinion of this film as anything else.  I really wish it could stay in my DVR for a few days longer.  This film really stuck with me.

I am a fan of Smith's podcasting and am especially fond of Hollywood Babble-on with Ralph Garman.  I had been anticipating seing Garman as the silent Caleb for many months now and his appearance was not overhyped.  He was downright imposing and creepy in this film.  Garmy strong!

That Kevin Pollak head shot was out of nowhere.  What a great moment.

Smith’s cameo was great.  It was almost too much for the film to end on the funny line of, "Will you shut the f*** up?!" but after a second viewing, I was fine with it.  It's a bit of a statement, really, and I don't know about you, but I was wanting to yell the same thing.  And anyway, Silent Bob has to speak once by the end of the film.

This film looked flat out fantastic in HD.  I'm no camera buff, but whatever Smith was using made for an extremely clean and crisp picture.
Happy to see the "Breaking Bad" love (Smith is an admitted fan) with the casting of Badger (Matt L. Jones) and Skyler White (Anna Gunn).

What’s with the old Miller Lite bottles?  That design has been defunct for years now.  No big deal, but it did cause me to raise an eyebrow.

I love how Michael Parks says, "Coker-Cola."

The horn.  What a great way to end the climax of the film, and it was such an eerie sound.  I kind of wish the movie had gone that giant leap further and actually ended the film right there, possibly indicating that the Rapture had indeed started.  As cool as an ending that might make, it would also undercut the meaning of the film, though.  It would basically make the Coopers right, and I'm pretty sure that is not the message Smith would want to end the film with.

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