"This isn't funny any more!" one of the boys yells, over and over again, about twenty minutes into Kevin Smith's Red State. "This isn't funny any more!" He's talking about the events on screen, of course, which have seen a rather depressing online sex rendezvous turn into a drugged kidnapping. But it's also a none-too-subtle nod to the filmmaker, a specialist of slacker comedy who has taken an unexpected and surprisingly effective turn towards darker and more sinister subject matter.
It begins as the story of three teenagers (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner) from a small Midwestern town in the proximity of the Cooper family, an evangelical sect in the Phelps mold that only seems to venture out of their church/compound to for vile public demonstrations, usually at funerals. The boys are aware of the Coopers, but their primary interests lie elsewhere: namely, the pursuit of anonymous sex, which one promises can be had with an anonymous woman he's connected with online via a Grindr-style app. They make a date. It doesn't go as planned.
The dirty-talking set-up isn't too far removed from Smith's usual style--he's toying with our expectations, palming quarters while entertaining us with patter. What is surprising about Smith's screenplay is how tightly wound the storytelling is. There's a confidence and a momentum to the progression of the events, which echo not only the Phelps family but Ruby Ridge and Waco; the ground he's covering sounds far-flung, but the narrative pushes forward with such precision that there's an inevitability to the way the events unfold. Always an entertaining if undisciplined writer, his scripts prone to shamble off on inexplicable side roads, Smith has penned (by a long shot) his leanest screenplay to date.
Thankfully, the execution matches the conception. The director has long been an object of derision for the flat, utilitarian look of his pictures, but visual pyrotechnics were never much called for in his stories, which were primarily composed of static dialogue scenes. Freed at last to get inventive, longtime cinematographer David Klein gives the picture a jittery, jagged energy; his washed-out color palate is stark, the handheld camerawork jarring (particularly in a tense foot chase through the Cooper home), the overall visual strategy frequently striking. Red State doesn't sound like a Smith picture; it doesn't look like one either. (Smith's editing, which was frequently lacking in previous efforts, has also grown by leaps and bounds his time around.)
Some, including the director himself, have dubbed Red State a horror movie, but it's surprisingly light on gore, or even the kind of garden-variety scares that are the currency of more generic shockers like Insidious and Vanishing on 7th Street. It is more of an unsettling movie, a disturbing one, in which the responsibility for jangling the audience is less on the sound designer and his library of cat shrieks, and more on the filmmaker's ability to create tension and his actors' skill at getting under our skin. To that end, not enough can be said about Michael Parks, the terrific character actor (and, more recently, favorite of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez) who plays Abin Cooper, the Fred Phelp-esque patriarch of the fundamentalist family. His voice a gravelly growl, his eyes black as night, his delivery deceptively laid-back, Parks delivers a long, riveting, and thoroughly creepy sermon early on that masterfully shifts the picture's tone; he's just talking, but there's evil in his bones ("God doesn't love you... 'less you fear him"). He doesn't raise his voice--he doesn't have to. He waits until the end to go for broke, and when he does, it's tremendous. John Goodman, as a good-hearted but petrified ATF agent, is terrific as well--but then again, there's not a bad performance in the movie, not really. Kerry Bishé (so good last year in Ed Burns's Nice Guy Johnny), Stephen Root, and newly minted Oscar winner Melissa Leo all turn up; all inhabit their roles with believability and immediacy.
Red State has its flaws; the opening sequences are a bit uncertain, some of the exposition is clunky, and--just once or twice--you wish Smith could resist the cheap laugh (I'm thinking specifically of the slapstick moment with Root). This isn't to say that everything should be dead serious; the byplay between Goodman and Kevin Pollak is funny, but rooted in a situational honesty. That moment with Root is the inclusion of a filmmaker less mature than Smith appears to be turning into.
As much as this reviewer would like to deal with Red State purely on its own terms, it doesn't come to us in a vacuum; reviewing a new Kevin Smith film without at least broaching the subject of his odd jihad against movie critics is failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. I'll merely restate my position: that his blasting of hard-working movie scribes and refusal to screen his work for them is a childish move, taken in defense of a throwaway movie that he didn't even write, and certainly not a position he was taking when critics were championing--and determining the fate--of films like Clerks and Chasing Amy. But to that I'll add that it's also a bafflingly short-sighted position, and not just because pissing in the face of critics will most certainly ensure a less-than-objective reception for your next effort (which is, for whatever it's worth, about the only explanation I can come up with for the mixed-to-hostile notices that greeted the picture at Sundance). More than that, it seems self-defeating to prevent critics from praising and pushing a low-budget film that could probably use the promotional help--and which, frankly, marks a real milestone for the filmmaker. Kevin Smith may not care what I have to say, and may be inexplicably trying to keep me from saying it, but here goes: Red State is sturdy, unnerving, and kind of brilliant.