If the world of internet commentators is any indication, then director Kevin Smith has his fair share of detractors. Thankfully, the vulgar, witty, bearded filmmaker also has a legion of die-hard, dedicated fans, and though I'm not quite a blind faith believer in all things Silent Bob, I am a big admirer of his works. In fact, while it's probably a huge cliché among online critics, movie bloggers and aspiring screenwriters to say so (well at least the ones who don't hate him), his films are actually a big part of what inspired my early aspirations toward movie-making. After breaking into the business with his indie sensation, 'Clerks,' the director has spent the last seventeen or so years pumping out profanity laced, dialogue driven comedies that succeed thanks to a clever, distinct voice and smart casting. After the commercial and critical failure of his last studio effort, 'Cop Out,' (the only one of his films I truly dislike) the filmmaker has gone in a completely different direction with 'Red State.' A gritty, disturbing blend of horror, action and satire, the movie is a startling break from Smith's usual humorous fare. A true independent production, the relatively low budget (about four million) effort is unfortunately uneven but still interesting, revealing a new visually creative side to the self-described "too-fat-to-fly" director known mostly for crude humor and static shots.
The plot follows a trio of Middle America teenagers (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) who respond to an internet ad soliciting sex. After meeting up with the apparently ready and willing woman (Melissa Leo), their hopes for getting laid are soon dashed and a much more sinister reality is revealed. Taken captive by a group of religious fanatics led by psychotic Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the boys must fight to survive in the face of almost certain death.
Taking inspiration from a variety of different genres, the script features an interesting mishmash of styles and tones. The film starts off with some elements that resemble a typical teen comedy, featuring bursts of Smith's trademark humorous dialogue, but soon heads down a very traditional horror film path. The setup, involving a group of teenagers seeking sex but instead finding danger, is a classic scenario straight out of many horror staples of the 70s and 80s. Just when you think the movie will be content to go down a tried-and-true slasher flick path, it quickly takes another turn, instead presenting a more raw, disturbing, visceral and satirical tale of evil at the hands of misguided religious belief. Smith doesn't stop there, however, and the last half of the picture goes in yet another direction. While I don't want to spoil any of the various twists and turns, the movie becomes surprisingly action heavy before reaching a somewhat anticlimactic but oddly fitting conclusion.
Headlined by a very talented cast that includes the aforementioned Michael Parks and Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo, the film is also home to other great performers like John Goodman, Stephen Root and a veritable who's who of TV actors. Angarano, Braun and Gallner all do a fine job as the trio of horny boys who are thrust into a totally screwed up situation. Their desperation and fear is palpable and as Smith mentions in the special features, their chemistry together makes them fairly likeable despite some thin characterizations. Also of note, is Kerry Bishe who handles the tricky role of Pastor Cooper's morally torn granddaughter well. Of course, Michael Parks is the real draw here, and his performance as Pastor Abin Cooper is extremely unsettling. An odd fusion of jokey Grandpa, charismatic leader, true believer, and bloodthirsty killer, the character is a disturbing portrait of evil hidden behind a mostly innocuous exterior. Parks' monologue on the depravity of homosexuality and the virtues of a fearful, vengeful God (while his family, including children, sing and laugh along) is absolutely stomach churning. The actor's eccentric delivery perfectly complements Smith's writing resulting in a memorable onscreen villain.
While he's often celebrated for his dialogue, Smith isn't exactly known for being a particularly interesting visual storyteller. With that said, 'Red State' presents an entirely new style from the director, and the gritty, raw aesthetic works great with the content. Shot on the RED camera and a Canon DSLR, Smith and director of photography David Klein employ a slightly verite, fly-on-the-wall, hand-held approach that creates a tense, foreboding tone. Various shaky close-ups engender a sense of claustrophobia that mirrors the state of being of the characters and disorients our sense of space. When the action kicks in during the film's later scenes, we are treated to some surprisingly effective and exciting sequences. The shootouts feature lots of moving shots and fast shutter speeds which result in a sharp, stuttering image that creates a visceral sense of motion. A certain element of 70s grindhouse style pervades the material, but it never goes quite over-the-top and instead retains a raw level of reality.
Despite an interesting visual style, strong performances and a genre bending script, 'Red State' isn't without some problems. There is a shortage of character development and while I understand that Smith was going for a more mood based story, the lack of a true protagonist to latch onto does take away from the movie's lasting impact. Sporadic moments of comedy are a welcomed inclusion, but the sly remarks clash a bit with the more disturbing tone that pervades much of the running time. On that same note, the changing genres and mood can make for a rather manic viewing experience that doesn't always work. Some elements of the narrative simply feel unfocused and unfinished, as if the script could have used another draft. Though the low-budget aesthetic fits well, there are a few shots that have a kind of unrefined "film school" quality (in other words, they feel like I directed them). The movie deals with a lot of interesting ideas concerning religion, politics, sexuality, fear and hate, and while our initial introduction to Cooper and his flock is fascinating, a lot of these concepts feel a little skimmed over and under-explored. Smith has a lot to say about the subjects he's examining and satirizing, and while his commentary is entertaining and at times thought provoking, as a whole it doesn't really offer the level of insight one might hope for and at its worst just comes across as directionless rambling. Still, at the end of the day the film succeeds more than it fails, favoring tension over character.
Smith described 'Red State' as a horror film early in its production but some have disagreed with that assessment, feeling that the movie's shifting styles don't fit the genre. As far as I'm concerned, that could not be further from the truth. To me, this is a horror film in the truest sense. It's a movie that presents an examination of a very special kind of evil. An evil that wears a sincere smile on its face. An evil that truly believes that what it's doing is right. This is a movie that ultimately offers no real heroes, no real figure to root for. Despite a pervasive satirical edge, a dark sense of humor, and a certain B movie quality, for much of the running time, this is a film where there is very little hope, where there is wrong doing on all sides, where the world is disturbing and hateful, and though exaggerated, where it is uncomfortably close to reality –- and really, isn't that the definition of true horror? It might be uneven, underdeveloped, and quite clunky at times, but 'Red State' is still a worthwhile watch that makes for an interesting addition to Smith's filmography.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate brings 'Red State' to Blu-ray on a BD-25 disc housed in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Shot in high definition, the film has a low budget but still very effective and at times even strong appearance.
The digital source is fairly clean, with very little noise and no real compression artifacts to speak of. Detail is surprisingly sharp with great clarity and the film's second half actually features some visually exciting action scenes. With that said, the image does have a certain gritty quality with washed out colors and a shaky, hand held documentary feel that lacks some dimension. Contrast is often blown out with blooming whites but the overexposed look works well with the raw tone and subject matter. Black levels are solid and consistent throughout. From a technical perspective, the only real drawback to the image involves some sporadic shimmering and minor aliasing (usually around fences) that appears to be a result of the original photography and not the transfer itself.
'Red State' isn't a traditionally impressive looking film, but its intentional raw aesthetic coupled with strong, sometimes razor sharp detail result in a very effective image that succeeds at being gritty, disturbing and exciting.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix with optional English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Regardless of the movie's budgetary restrictions, the mix features some good variety between loud and quiet design choices and opens up nicely when it needs to.
Though the movie is a big departure from Smith's previous work, dialogue is still a very key component here. Thankfully, speech is full and crisp. With that said, Michael Parks can be a little hard to make out at times, but this is a result of the actor's delivery and not the technical presentation. Directionality across the entire soundstage is pretty good, but the first half of the film is mostly front loaded with some minor ambiance hitting the rears. Various moody effects seep from the speakers to create a quiet but very creepy soundscape full of screams, clanking metal and deceptively joyful singing. Once the movie switches gears in its later sections, the sound design really opens up. When guns start blazing rear activity rises to the occasion, filling the room with whizzing bullets that thump with nice bass response. Dynamic range across the entire auditory spectrum is good, and there is no distortion among the high or low frequencies. Balance between all of the elements is handled well.
With a low-key first half and an action centric second half, the mix actually presents a nice mixture of quiet and aggressive segments. The various creepy effects and design work help to bolster the visuals and create an immersive atmosphere.
Kevin Smith titles are known for their wide assortment of special features, and while not quite as packed as some other releases, 'Red State' doesn't disappoint in that regard. Lionsgate has included a nice assortment of supplements including a making of, deleted scenes and several SModcast commentaries. All of the special features are presented in high definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitle options. With the exception of the commentaries, each extra also features an introduction by Kevin Smith.
'Red State' is a tense, creepy, but at times clunky and underdeveloped film. While the movie as a whole doesn't ever completely gel, Smith's foray into "horror" is neither a total disaster nor a rousing success –- but the uneven experience is always an entertaining and disturbing ride. Despite its low budget, the film actually features strong video and audio presentations. A traditional commentary track would have been nice, but the included supplements are all worthwhile and informative. Though it's a big departure from the various adventures of Jay and Silent Bob, big fans of the director should not hesitate to check this out and those who dig creepy horror and gritty action should find a lot to like here. Worth a look.