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It was the mid-90s; probably 1995 or 1996. I was over at a friend’s apartment, sitting around watching TV. We were both a couple years out of high school, rather aimless, but full of big ideas. Out of the blue he said, “Oh! I forgot! You’ve got to see this movie! This guy’s girlfriend…she sucks thirty-seven dicks!”
Now, if this were a perfect world, I wouldn’t responded, “In a row?” Alas, the universe did not provide me with the appropriate line, so I simply said, “Good enough for me!”
And for the next hour and a half, I watched Clerks for the first time. And it resonated. Big time. After all, my friend and I were Smith’s ideal audience. I was a college student, working part-time at Sam’s Club and trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. My friend was bouncing around from shit job to shit job, aspiring to be a professional musician, but without the true skills to back them up. We were, to use a clichéd term relevant to that era, slackers.
As luck would have it, my friend had also rented Smith’s second flick, Mallrats, which we immediately dug into. From there, I became a pretty big fan of Kevin Smith’s work. Not the über-fan who buys tons of merchandise, hangs on his every word, and travels to Comicon just to see him speak. More like an “ardent appreciator”. Though, admittedly, Smith’s work influenced a bit of my personality and humor back in those formative years when the characters who populated movies like Mallrats and Chasing Amy seemed to be drawn straight out of my life. I own all of his movies (including Jersey Girl), listen to the bulk of the shows on his SModcast podcast network, and at least skim through his mountains of tweets on a daily basis.
Despite all of this, I wasn’t sure I would like Red State. In fact, I feared it would be a mess. And it’s not because it wasn’t a comedy. I’ve read plenty of Smith stories that stray from the laughs and get downright serious. Hell, his Batman book “The Widening Gyre” was a masterpiece, showing a side of Bruce Wayne that nobody’s ever thought to explore in such an intimate way. But there were warning signs with Red State. The Weinsteins, usually home to all of Smith’s film endeavors, passed on the flick, forcing him to search for outside investors. Furthermore, no one from his traditional stable of players was set to be cast in the movie. And though real heavyweights like John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Michael Parks were eventually announced, I wasn’t certain that Smith could get their best. And finally, the initial reactions from the Sundance screening were a real mixed bag with some claiming that Red State was a rambling, jumbled movie that didn’t know what it wanted to be.
I’m not going to preface this any further: Kevin Smith’s Red State is the absolute best movie of his career. (Which is terribly depressing considering the fact that he’s planning on giving up directing after his next flick). The movie is tense, uncomfortable, sharp, fascinating, and wonderfully-produced. And yes, for those Smith fans who aren’t comfortable with the idea of him not doing a comedy, the movie can also be very funny at times. The cast he has assembled is brilliant, with the aforementioned Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman delivering the standout performances. It’s a movie that will stick with you for days, and one that I can’t wait to see again when it hits theaters in October.
I’m not going to get into the behind-the-scenes stuff about Red State. You know, the Sundance shenanigans, the self-distribution/punk-rock scheme that Smith’s got going; none of that stuff. This film deserves to have the focus placed squarely upon itself.
Red State takes place in an unnamed small town and begins with three high school students finding a Craig’s List style website for people who “wanna get fucked.” This is as close to the “old” Kevin Smith themes as Red State gets. From there, we’re introduced to the town’s most notorious inhabitants, the Five Points Chuch, a group of nut-jobs who share a lot in common with the real-life Westboro Baptist Church, run by Fred Phelps and his crazy family. It’s slowly revealed that this church has taken steps beyond the Phelpses and has begun killing sinners “in the name of the Lord.” And because I don’t want any part of the plot beyond this ruined, I’ll simply say that shit goes down and the movie gets really “Waco, TX”.
I’d like to address an earlier concern of mine; that this movie could have been “a mess”. Frankly, depending on how you look at it, Red State actually is a mess. But it revels in that messiness. It’s not, as Smith has been insisting, a horror movie. Nor is it an action flick. And we’ve already established that it’s certainly not a comedy. So what is it? It’s the best kind of movie; the kind that defies expectations, breaks the rules, and genuinely surprises the audience.
My showing was at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, with an audience of Kevin Smith fans who had each paid roughly $70 per ticket. So no, there probably weren’t a lot of skeptics in the audience. After all, you don’t pay that kind of money to see a movie if you’re not already predisposed to liking the director’s work. That said, this movie hit on all the right notes. My wife, who didn’t even know the name of the movie before the lights went down, jumped out of her seat a number of times, gasped at certain plot points, and was visibly uncomfortable at others. And, at the end, she, along with everyone else, gave the movie a standing ovation.
I’m not telling you that Red State is perfect. There was an alternate ending that Smith discussed in his Q&A session afterwards that I found myself wishing he would have used because it would have completely taken the movie over-the-top in terms of blowing the audience away. But I’ll restate that Red State is, in my mind, the best kind of movie. I can see why it was rejected by the Weinsteins: it’s not an easy sell and it’s not the kind of movie that the mass audience is going to flock to. But the acting tour-de-force on display from all of the players, the sharp, jarring turns the plot takes, and – most surprisingly for Smith – the wonderful handheld cinematography all make Red State a wonderful experience for viewers looking for something outside of the mega-plex norm. It’s a truly unique film and proof that Kevin Smith is more than an indie black sheep and capable of making more than dick and fart jokes. In fact, I’d say that Red State is proof that Kevin Smith is capable of being a great artist. It’s just too bad that he’s showing this kind of storytelling mastery just before he hangs up his skates.