When Kevin Smith’s Red State debuted at Sundance, much of the deafening buzz around the screening centered on the writer-director’s attention-grabbing plan to bypass the studio system entirely by distributing the film himself. Smith is a master of self-promotion, but the audaciousness of his Red State business strategy couldn’t help but obscure the audaciousness of the film itself. With Red State, Smith ventures far outside his comfort zone of endlessly chatty films about pop-culture-damaged slackers and into exhilaratingly unfamiliar waters. He’s taking as many bold chances artistically as he is commercially. He deserves to be commended for his ambition, even though the execution is sometimes lacking.
Red State stars Michael Angarano as one of three friends who head to a trailer park to have sex en masse with swinger Melissa Leo. Leo isn’t at all what she appears to be, however, and Angarano and his friends are soon at the mercy of a psychotic, deeply deranged preacher (Michael Parks), overtly modeled after Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” and “worst person in the world” infamy. Halfway through the film, the action radically shifts gears with the introduction of FBI agent John Goodman, a good man in a situation that grows more impossible and dangerous by the minute.
Smith’s shocker cultivates a mood of dread and ominous foreboding through canny sound design and a visual aesthetic indebted to grindhouse opuses of the late 1960s and 1970s. Red State at least looks and feels dirty and transgressive. The film gets off to a promisingly naturalistic start, until Parks begins a fire-and-brimstone monologue that goes on and on and on. It’s a beautifully delivered speech, but by the time it crawls to a close, whatever tension or suspense the film has built has been lost. Red State is gloriously unencumbered by fidelity to genre conventions, which lends it a thrilling element of unpredictability even when the action frequently grows shrill and heavy-handed. Otherwise, its greatest asset is Parks, who makes his messianic lunatic simultaneously loathsome and seductive. He’s an exemplar of smiling evil, a man corrupted by absolute belief in the rightness of his actions and the wrongness of everyone else’s. Parks almost single-handedly redeems a film that fails mainly because it aims too high.