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Jason Wallis Brutal, darkly comic ‘Red State’ a game-changer for Kevin Smith

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, September 9, 2011 12:44 pm

It’s September, which means three things to a Halloween enthusiast like me: the super-stores are open, grocery stores are running candy discounts, and the time is ripe for scary movies.

I was looking forward to kicking off the Halloween season with a look at “Apollo 18,” but critics and audiences alike have been vehement in their near-unanimous hatred of the film. (I mean, killer moon rocks? Just… wow. That’s not even worthy of a spoiler alert.)

Call me a follower, but I tend to listen to irate masses. But no worries — although my radar has been a bit off lately, the next two week’s columns are set in stone with the well-received “Contagion” and “Drive.”

Thankfully, Kevin Smith comes through in the clutch with “Red State,” a highly inventive, darkly comic thriller that opens soon in limited release but is available for order On Demand. And by the way, as we get closer to Halloween I may include DVD picks for other horror films to go along with featured reviews, and will be considering suggestions. Drop me a line, won’t you?

Kevin Smith has yet to earn my blatant contempt as a moviegoer, but I must concede that over the past few years I’ve really come to question my admiration for his work. There’s no denying his talent as a writer, and such recent efforts as “Clerks II” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” have succeeded thanks to his ear for engaging dialogue and believable characterizations. Yet these successes were also in spite of his complete lack of appreciation for the importance of image and the nuances of film’s formal elements. Shooting a bunch of your friends standing around reading your clever dialogue is not sound filmmaking, especially for a 15-year veteran. And this is to say nothing of “Jersey Girl” and “Cop Out,” which were just flat-out failures.

This bumpy history makes “Red State” an especially surprising and most welcome game-changer for Smith, who has built a career out of straight comedies predicated on crude sex and fart jokes. The film represents a giant leap forward for him as a filmmaker, and is indeed the only Smith film that suggests any interest in actual cinematic technique. I was initially skeptical when he claimed that producing and distributing the movie himself allowed him the opportunity to deliver the visionary, uncompromising, totally kick-ass horror flick he intended to make, free from the studio interference that allegedly ruined several of his previous works. Yet it appears there’s something to these claims, and upon seeing the film it is clear that Smith has intentionally bucked every genre convention and audience expectation imaginable. He fought the system, and he’s come out on top.

“Red State” starts out as a typical slasher flick: After chatting online with an older woman, three horny teenaged boys decide to embark on a wild night of old-fashioned drunkenness and debauchery. The woman’s trailer-park home just outside town is creepy and vaguely threatening, but these guys aren’t picky. Quite inevitably, they are drugged in short order and wake up to find themselves imprisoned by members of a heavily armed and diabolically insane Christian militia who intend to make an example of the boys and their hedonistic ways — just as they’ve been systematically murdering random homosexuals in their community.

It is at this point that “Red State” becomes something much more than a “Hostel”-inspired freak show. By allowing “church patriarch” Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, in a delectably evil performance that holds the entire movie together) to take center stage starting with a 15-minute introductory sermon that culminates in the brutal execution of an innocent gay man, Smith quickly abandons the traditional structure of a “crazy hillbillies” slasher flick. He soon shifts genres, too, as the church turns into the site of a Waco-style government siege, with the surviving teen forced to join with some of the militia’s younger, less indoctrinated members to avoid slaughter.

Smith takes a great many chances with this film, and most of them pay off. The changes in tone and genre keep the viewer in a constant holding pattern, as do the many plot twists that Smith throws into the final act. This is bold, take-no-prisoners filmmaking, and an effective personal statement from Smith, a man of faith who is understandably disturbed by the dangerous bigotry that has become normalized in our society in the name of “God’s love.” (Granted, the Westboro-inspired militia members aren’t exactly mainstream, but their hate and vitriol isn’t too different from what you can hear from friends, neighbors and elected officials in any community on a regular basis. Need I even bring up the ongoing Prop. 8 debacle playing out in sunny, tolerant California?)

Smith also takes aim at the government agents, portrayed as empty suits who claim the moral high ground but really have even less regard for innocent human life than their targets do. The lone voice of reason is John Goodman’s mid-level ATF agent, who in the end is revealed to be nothing more than a morally weak yes-man guided only by self-interest — albeit with a slightly guiltier conscience than his cohorts. This is a bleak view of America, tempered with provocative flashes of jet-black humor. Quite a step up from sex and fart jokes.

“Red State” is rated R for graphic violence and profanity.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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