Whether you love or hate him, writer/director Kevin Smith has, as usual, been extremely vocal about his films. His latest, Red State, is no exception, though this time, his words have set certain expectations that unfortunately work against the movie itself. In particular, he’s been saying for years that Red State would be a horror movie (in marked contrast to the comedies for which he’s best known). But whatever else Red State may be, it’s not really a horror film; it’s a polemical action film, and in some ways, one of the most audacious action movies to come out in a long time.
That’s not to say Red State does not make some attempt at horror early on. Three high school boys try to meet up with a woman they met online for sex, but soon after arriving, they’re drugged. They wake up in the middle of a church ceremony that ends with an allegedly gay man being killed, which largely concludes the horror portion of the program. When cops find the boys’ missing vehicle at the church, the whole area becomes enveloped in a huge firefight. From then on, it’s a full-on action movie (and a pretty well-directed one at that).
Red State’s centerpiece is a powerful and slightly overlong diatribe against the world by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), in which he illustrates his belief that the path to true religious conviction is through hatred. The monologue sticks with you, and is far and away the best scene in the movie. There are also a few other solid set pieces, with Smith lining up a seemingly clichéd storyline before making a sharp right turn that confounds expectations. In fact, it’s the screenplay’s willingness to drop subplots or characters without the slightest sentimentality that keeps the film fresh throughout.
There’s almost nothing about Red State that isn’t over-the-top. That’s not a bad thing, though, and the whole film has the affectionate rough edges and expressiveness of an old-fashioned B-movie. Smith has spoken about the film as something like his version of The Shining, but Red State is much closer to Sam Fuller than Kubrick. Like Fuller’s movies, it has the strength to stick with its convictions, regardless of the demands of realism. The film doesn’t pull any punches, and while its heightened reality may not be for everyone, Red State has the integrity not to care.