Eschewing the studio system (with which he brought us Cop Out) the freedom he enjoys bears juicy fruit as this deliberate move into new territory results in a fine horror film from the director, one which makes his promised retirement all the more disappointing. It also shows that as a director Smith knows how to let his actors lead the film, though occasionally they run too far and risk running the show into the ground, but the powerful central performance from Michael Parks anchors the film.
This is not a straight up horror film, and the film shifts gears between your typical horny teen-infused cautionary tale to a Wacoesque siege movie with the (Westboro in all but name) Five Points Trinity Church taking their unholy orders to a grisly extreme and it’s one of the few films of last year which keeps you guessing.
As head of the church Michael Parks is magnificent, spitting his hateful rhetoric and curling his venomous words with distinct glee to his small congregation who watch as the Church take the word of God, twist it, and get biblical on those unfortunate enough to get caught in their trap. There’s fine support from Melissa Leo and John Goodman, who seems to relish the opportunity to pay things straight, but Parks is the dark heart of the film, the black hole around which the other members of the church orbit, teetering close to the inevitable.
A couple of moments stand out from the film, one problematic and the other inspired. It’s better, if you’ve not seen the film, that you go in knowing only the bare bones of the story (horny teens, psycho church, guns) as there’s great stock in the unexpected here. These two plot elements which tell the story of the film point to what’s good and not so good about the film but make no mistake – this is a director finding his feet on new ground and the film is absolutely worth a watch.
Here’s where the two sides of the film fall. When we meet Michael Parks’ FredPhelpsalike he is delivering a sermon to the congregation and there’s an unhealthy line in fire and brimstone, death by stoning, centered around the eroding moral centre of America and most of the blame is laid firmly at the feet of the gay community, and it goes on and on and on – almost too far. We’re meant to hate this man, and we do, but his grounding in reality is his power in terms of being the villain of the piece and Smith’s love of dialogue threatens the scene, the crux of the film.
The second moment comes towards the end of the film and I’ll not spoil things but there’s an important sign, one that is unexpected and for a moment you think that Smith has done something truly extraordinary. He hasn’t, as it turns out, but the fact that for a moment you believe is testament to the power of the film.
This is a brutal and effective horror film, with some moments of extreme violence and real terror (Kerry Bishe deserves a lot of the credit here – her performance as the one member of the church with any sense at all is a real eye-opener for the actress up until now best now as the lead in the death rattle of the sitcom Scrubs) and Smith has his moment of dark comedy pitched perfectly. A genuine surprise, and a welcome one.
What you need to watch is the making of documentary which charts the film’s progress from the Sundance auctionnouncment to the release and it has Kevin Smith in fine, and candid, form. In amongst the usual praise for the cast and crew there’s another story being told here. Smith is a filmmaker who infuriates and inspires in equal measure, with a legion of hardcore fans and a line of haters a mile long and yet there’s a genuine sense of gratitude which comes across, of a man who gets to tell story in many mediums (and some stories are better than others), but the fact that his life would have turned out very differently if Clerks hadn’t been picked up all those years ago never seems far from his mind.
It’s been a bumpy road and if Red State is to be the penultimate stop on Kevin Smith’s filmmaking journey then it’s a fine road to take before heading home and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for his big finish.