Fantasia 2011: ‘Red State’ doesn’t quite work, but still showcases Kevin Smith’s growth

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Red State

Written by Kevin Smith

Directed by Kevin Smith

USA, 2011

Red State may feature a certain wit familiar to Kevin Smith’s most ardent fans, but it’s minimized in favour of a social consciousness and the deafening sound of rifles as he tackles extreme religious fanaticism. The film begins on familiar ground, channeling a familiar and crude aura as three teenage boys are on a quest to get laid. Unfortunately things don’t quite work out, and they are kidnapped by an extreme church that engages in such community-building activities as protesting gay teen funerals and wrapping people in cling film.

Risk-taking is almost always an admirable quality in a filmmaker, and with this film, Smith is making a clear break from his early work. This is not only reflected in the film’s content and tone, but in his decision to mobilize the camera. Though occasionally nauseating (perhaps this is the intention), there is a surprising amount of tension and grace created through the camera movement. This makes certain moments or scenes where a shot is steady far more impactful. This is easily his most visually adventurous film.

The schizophrenic editing style is jarring at first. Closer in montage tone to a movie like Gamer than anything else, it manages to transform that ADD video-game editing style into something strangely evocative. It does not always hit the mark, but at its best, it reflects an emotional and social state of mind that is essential to his vision. One has a real sense of moments of intense emotion being reflected in the snippets of dialogue and imagery as the jump cuts create iconographic personalities and actions. The serene images of Saints and Gods have long been replaced by manic and deceptive figures who have more in common with the grotesque representations of Goya than any classical religious imagery.

Red State tackles the disparity that exists between the right to freedom and the right to life. Smith may not ask why, when given a choice, so much of humanity turns to darkness. He does however acknowledge this as the great price to freedom. The difficulty of personal agency in face of social advancement and self-interest is reflected in the morally dubious characters. It is at it’s most interesting in the representation of the film’s most sympathetic characters, brought to life by John Goodman and relative newcomer Kerry Bishé. Both seem to be torn between duty and a sense of good, and their parallel realization of powerlessness is quite moving and effective.

Where Red State falters is in its unfocused narrative approach and an over-reliance on firepower. Though there are at least two characters who earn the audience’s sympathy and interest, this is in spite of the fact that most of the film jumps back and forth between many characters who are severely underdeveloped. The three teenage boys are used especially poorly used, and as they are central to the film’s exposition, it undercuts a lot of the possible emotional investment in the film. Worse yet is the over-reliance on guns as a means of advancing the narrative and creating cheap shocks. The film is clearly embroiled in gun culture, which explains their omnipresence, but the film’s opinion on this phenomena is hazy at best. Bringing a gun into a horror movie is usually a fatal error, serving as a too-handy deux ex-machina when you need to move things along. Red State is not only guilty of this, but also uses guns as a fear factor, inspiring anxiety through an extremely extended sequence characterized solely by the constant sound of gunfire. It renders the sequence redundant and ineffective.

Much of Red State does not work. Things don’t quite come together in an entirely cohesive way, though individual sections and technical aspects work. It is certainly a step in the right direction for Smith, who seems to be struggling in recent years to excite audiences like he did earlier in his career. It is not a film for everyone, but is certainly of interest to genre fans, especially those with a penchant for topical events and issues.

Justine Smith

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