The Reinvention of a Filmmaker: Anarchy as Narrative in Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

“Red State” is not so much the natural progression of Kevin Smith’s directorial oeuvre as it is a necessary detour. The controversial filmmaker, after exhausting the limits of the quick-witted slacker comedy stylings he pioneered in years past, has made a movie that would be considered unusual by any measure, let alone in comparison to the bulk of his filmography.

“Clerks”, “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy”– retrospectively dubbed “the Jersey trilogy”– were paeans to male adolescence; a glorification of the trials and tribulations of the ennui-ridden 90s manchild as he waxes philosophical on Star Wars minutiae, quotes superhero movies and struggles with his own insecurities.  “Dogma” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” both marked growth, in opposing directions; “J&SBSB” expanded on the over-the-top cartoonish  inclinations of “Mallrats”, while “Dogma” saw Smith tackling weightier topics– in this case, organized religion.

From that point on, Smith’s output became a little erratic. “Jersey Girl” was a syrupy ode to fatherhood that got a critical lashing and lukewarm box office results. “Clerks 2” was a back-to-the-well kneejerk reaction to “JG” that was wildly entertaining as well as emotionally resonant, but ultimately felt contrived, lightweight and a little hokey. It was hard not to perceive “Zack & Miri Make a Porno” as an attempt by Smith to capitalize on the Apatow contingent, while “Cop Out”, Smith’s first (and probably only) foray into the world of director-for-hire, was an uneven mess of a buddy-cop movie that received the worst reviews of his career. Such ups-and-downs are not uncommon in a director’s career, however, Smith’s life in Hollywood has been marked by a number of fairly unique twists and turns; his parallel calling as a standup comedian of sorts, his highly successful comic book work, his complicated relationship with film critics, the infamous Southwest Airlines incident, and most recently, the building of a large 24/7 podcasting network titled S.I.R.— Smodcast Internet Radio, named after the podcast he started only a couple years ago, as a lark, with frequent collaborator Scott Mosier.

So just like Smith’s career has not followed a traditional path, there’s remarkably little that’s traditional about “Red State”. Smith’s first genuinely independent feature since Clerks (even “Chasing Amy” was financed by Miramax), “Red State” was made on a shoestring budget– just under 4 million dollars, which is close to nothing by Hollywood standards. Surprisingly, the biggest source of controversy this time around wasn’t the incendiary content of the movie, but its method of distribution. Debuting at Sundance, Smith and his new production company The Harvey Boys (a nod to his longtime mentor Harvey Weinstein) had announced that they would pick their distributor in the room, auction-style. A room filled with industry insiders itching to be the ones to show this movie around the world (or maybe not, we’ll never know) were shocked when the auction was cut short by Smith’s own winning 20$ bid, after which he stepped up to the podium, apologized for his ruse and delivered a heartfelt speech.

Perceived by some as a bridge-burning diatribe, and by others as an inspirational call-to-arms, Smith’s rallying cry disassembled Hollywood finances and laid out the strategy behind Red State’s release: self-distribution. A city-by-city tour, like in the olden days of cinema, after which a more traditional theatrical release would follow. The gamble raised a lot of eyebrows at the time, but it seems to have paid off: already firmly in profit months before the theatrical release date, the film is currently racking up downloads via Video On Demand.

The movie itself is perhaps just as unorthodox as its backstory. “Red State” starts off not unlike a Kevin Smith movie, with three young boys talking about getting laid. Travis, Jared and Billy Ray discuss hooking up with a woman on an online casual encounters site (“like Craigslist for people who wanna get fucked”). She lives 30 minutes away and wants to have sex with all three of them at the same time. Too good to be true? Well…  yeah.

This nameless Jezebel turns out to be a trap by members of pastor Abin Cooper’s radical Christian fundamentalist church, Five Points. Cooper and his church are infamous for their staunchly anti-homosexual views, protesting funerals and holding up signs, yelling loudly at grieving families, taking delight in their belief that the homosexual is burning in hell. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Abin and his church are based on Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Just like Phelps, the Coopers are a small, tight-knit group, consisting almost entirely of blood relatives, and hold private daily services, decrying the end of civilization as brought upon by the gays. Unlike Phelps, the Coopers take things a little further, actually carrying out God’s will by luring the sexually devious into their traps and bringing them back to the church for a little taste of their version of God’s love.

Travis, Jared and Billy Ray are drugged, bound and placed in line for the service, when something goes wrong; a minor incident near the start of the film results in some unforeseen complications, and the Feds get involved. To go any further on plot details would be to reveal too much, and rob the movie of some of its impact.

And it does carry a mighty clout. Within the span of just a few moments, the movie goes from bawdy comedy to disturbing horror to political thriller (Smith neatly divides the cast credit into three sections– sex, religion and politics). “Red State” is a tense, disconcerting and sometimes exasperating ride, one that is all the more rewarding if you stick it out and allow yourself to be taken by it, instead of trying to make sense of it from the viewpoint of traditional dramatic structure. Indeed, it is the movie’s freewheeling spin on dramatic conflict that gives it much of its power.

At the heart of classic storytelling, there is conflict. The conflict is generated by a protagonist trying to accomplish a certain goal, and an opposing force, an antagonist, working against them. This leads to the classic three-act structure, with arcs and subplots contained within that resolve themselves in parallel throughout the running time of the movie. “Red State” operates outside of this mold, with no clearly defined protagonist; just when you think you’re following a certain character, you’re thrown a curve ball. Smith keeps you on your toes at all times, with tension that rises and recedes like waves, culminating in a strangely horrifying sequence.

All of that aside, one of this movie’s key strengths is the incredible acting chops of– well, most everybody in the cast. Michael Parks is unquestionably the star of the show, delivering a masterful performance of a profoundly evil person who also manages to be fascinating and likable– indeed, a 10-minute sermon scene would be a real momentum killer in most movies, but Parks makes it an enrapturing 10 minutes, drawing you in with every phrase. Melissa Leo is also remarkable as Cooper’s deranged daughter Sarah. John Goodman gives a credible, and very human, performance as an ATF officer caught between what’s right and what’s expected of him. Kerry Bishé is outstanding as a member of Cooper’s clan, effectively a beacon in the darkness that is the Five Points Trinity Church. And I can’t not mention the performances by the three young actors Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun.

It’s not a perfect movie. We have an inordinate amount of expositional dialogue, which I understand is a necessity for a movie of this nature. But on three different occasions, we see John Goodman on the phone with his superiors, receiving orders and relaying the information to the audience by means of unnecessary response dialogue. It furthers the plot, sure, but it’s also tedious watching and feels forced and unnatural. “Red State” also falls trap to the old action-movie trope– the more shots are fired, the less each shot matters. At a certain point, the deafening cacophony of machine guns becomes white noise, and we care very little any time someone dies on camera (although this is cleverly subverted at a certain point, with the most shocking death in the movie feeling genuinely disturbing and senseless).

A lot of the negative reviews are focusing on what “Red State” isn’t, not what it is. And what it is is a chilling morality tale about belief, fear and entitlement, that’s best enjoyed as a rollercoaster ride rather than a neat three-act narrative. Because Smith is a cinephile who knows the rules of classic storytelling so well, he is able to operate just outside of those bounds and deliver a deeply affecting story. His fluctuating career has brought along a lot of unlikely projects, but nothing quite as unlikely as “Red State”. For someone who constantly declares himself a “creature of fear”, Smith has never been more fearless.

Order “Red State” on Video On Demand here.

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