Hell raining down etc..
In the early 90's, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax had the novel idea that maybe the directors of a movie would speak about their project with more eloquence and insight than the actors who starred in it. The likes of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Smith became their films, they became voices that superseded their work, and to varying degrees of measurement, all of their careers fell victim to the ego that this status created. Smith's is the most overt though, in which Kevin Smith the personality, Kevin Smith the cult seemed to overwhelm everything, from the reception of his films to his status as a film-maker.
Every film made under the Smith name left to devolve into a critics vs Kevin Smith pissing match, regardless of how good it actually was, until it became apparent that his legacy outside of his hardcore fanbase of Smodcast listeners and fans, would be as the guy who threw a hissy fit every time someone gave him a bad review. The Weinstein plan had backfired, and the platform Smith had been afforded was being used to throw poop at the meanies. To be honest I think Kevin Smith somewhat missed his calling, and probably was supposed to be a stand-up comedian as opposed to a director. He's an incredibly smart, insightful guy with a unique voice, and anyone who's seen a Smith movie knows how good he is at writing dialogue, it's just he's never really been able to tell a story, and always seemed ill at ease in any kind of narrative that didn't rely on irreverent bullshitting. Chasing Amy was maybe the closest, but as the years passed by so did Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri and Cop Out. Each in their own way more damning evidence of the fact that maybe this guy just doesn't have it in him to make a great movie.
Red State feels like the last-ditch attempt to get away from all that. To get away from the Pre-conceptions and self-destructive media patterns that Smith has gone down before. He's tried to make his voice disappear here, and let the movie speak for itself. Except he couldn't, and via a pretty smug publicity stunt at Sundance and a consequent bemusement that people were talking about him again instead of the film. But much as been said about that. Red State itself? Well it's an imperfect movie, sure, but there's a lot of ambition here, a lot of good intention and a lot of raw talent on display. It may be the closest Smith has gotten to reigning in his various abilities and applying them to making the movie as good as it could possibly be, to allowing the material to stand on its own. Equal parts religiously-themed horror movie and morally ambiguous siege movie, it's still way too ADD, but there's a lot to like here.
The first thing that comes to mind of course is the performance of Michael Parks, who as the extremely fundamentalist preacher who has taken to murdering those who in he's opinion aren't living up to the word of God quite as stringently as he would like. Parks is pretty terrific, pleasingly under-playing the role and making him as a little a cartoon as is humanly possible. I'd say his sermon scene went on way too long that the speechifying somewhat sucked the tension and the horror of the situation, but I enjoyed the performance enough that I'll forgive that. I'd say that the political dynamic is somewhat lessened by making the lead potential victims being relatively bland horny teenagers, instead of say, a gay person or someone to whom Parks and his congregation loath most profusely. Indeed the only gay victim dies without a name or a line.
I think the second half, in which the protagonist becomes John Goodman's FDA agent takes over the movie, is probably the stronger, in which difficult moral dilemmas and a violent siege replace the torture porn style executioning. Goodman is terrific in everything, but I found him to be a real stabling presence in this movie, which maybe wanted to more than it's 90 minutes would allow, and it gave the second half a real energy. Melissa Leo was pretty great, but I was pleasingly impressed by both Kerry Bishe and Kyle Gallner, playing two teens from different worlds who worked well together here.
Ultimately, I don't think Red State quite gets right all it wants to get right, but I am a sucker for films with ambition, and almost certainly Smith's most ambitious film as a director. It's the kind of horror movie that should be made more often, where the horror speaks to something as opposed to the violence being the whole point, and its certainly smarter than your average slasher or torture porn movie. Not a direct hit, but not too far off either. I do think the ending is sort of a botch though.