Red State Blu-ray ReviewOctober 24, 2011
I truly don't know where to begin.
See, in my head I've been writing my review of Kevin Smith's self-distributed Red State since I saw it on the campus of Butler University back in March.
It's fair to say that Red State has had a pretty firm grip on my imagination since Smith announced back in January that he would release and tour the movie himself, and seeing the film itself only tightened its grip on my consciousness.
And now, here I am with a chance to review the movie, and I'm finding myself at something of a loss for words.
In short, Red State is, in just about every way conceivable, a symbol of what independent cinema should be. It's a shining beacon on an artist's right not only to build on his own success but also to reinvent himself at any time he sees fit.
The most common comment regarding the movie has been, "Wait, that was a Kevin Smith movie? But Kevin Smith does R-rated comedy; not horror-suspense!"
The movie begins in familiar enough territory for Smith. Three teenage boys find a contact in the Internet willing to bust their proverbial cherries, which - as is often the case in horror-centric pictures - leads to nothing good whatsoever.
The boys soon find themselves at the mercy of Pastor Abin Cooper (the brilliant, brilliant, BRILLIANT Michael Parks) and his Five Points Trinity Church, a congregation loosely based upon Fred Phelps and the Wesboro Baptist Church (you know them better as the "God Hates Fags" people) who take it upon themselves to punish the youngsters for their "wickedness."
The situation slowly and continuously burns to a fever pitch to the point that an all-out firefight ensues between the heavily-armed Five Points believers and a team of ATF agents led by Special Agent Joseph Keenan (the ever-underused John Goodman).
And, yes, let me say it once again: This movie comes from the Clerks guy.
To see Smith - routinely bashed for his visual style (or lack thereof) ever since getting a foot in the door with Clerks back in 1994 - take such a sharp left turn is inspiring in and of itself, but to see that the movie takes an untold number of equally sharp turns is positively thrilling.
And that, in a nutshell, is the beauty of Red State. You never know where it's going to go next.
As mentioned earlier, it begins in much the way you'd expect a Kevin Smith movie to begin. Relatively immature males talking in very crude language about sexual acts is par for the course for Smith. But 15 minutes into the movie, it's clear that Smith is no longer playing on the same course.
When Parks makes his entrance as Cooper, a terror fills the screen the likes of which is more real than many of us would care to admit; it appears in the form of a kindly old grandfather. Every horrific act to follow is more or less predicated by a man who, from time-to-time, will no doubt remind you of your own grandfather or a favorite uncle.
That's the true terror of Red State: People like this exist, and Smith is positively unrelenting in his quest to remind us of that fact.
Indeed, the story on the whole is one about moral relativism. There are literally no characters in this movie with redeeming qualities. When the firefight begins to go badly for the government agents, even Goodman, who is supposedly our hero at this point, begins to show chinks in his armor.
In terms of performance, there isn't enough space anywhere to illustrate just how great Michael Parks is in this movie.
The best way I can think of is to explain it thusly: When Ricardo Montalban played Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the greatest praise he received from critics was that there was not a trace of Fantasy Island (a lighthearted series he was starring in at the time) to be found anywhere in his performance as William Shatner's nemesis.
Likewise, Parks absolutely disappears into the role of Abin Cooper. And also like Montalban, the story of Parks's career is one of having the sheer magnitude of his talent overlooked. Great roles pass great actors by far too often.
And Parks is smart enough to milk a great role for everything that it's worth, as is evidenced by his terrifying performance as Pastor Cooper.
The performances from the entire cast are to be lauded, really. The three boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun) all play their parts to perfection, as does Kerry Bische as Cheyenne, the 20-something caretaker of the Cooper children.
Strangely, the movie's weakest performance (in terms of effectiveness, at least) comes from Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo as Sara, Abin Cooper's fanatically-loyal daughter. While her over-the-top performance is certainly in character, it's probably the lone aspect of the film that breaks the suspension of disbelief.
However, it's a small storm to have to weather as there's more than enough good stuff to go around with Red State. As noted, Smith's script is sharp and tight and covers a wide range of emotional material. It's a movie that can make you laugh with glee one second, cheer with bloodthirsty satisfaction, and sit silent in absolute terror.
But it wouldn't truly be a Kevin Smith film if there wasn't something to criticize when it comes to the movie's visual presentation, right?
This film looks fantastic. If this truly is to be Kevin Smith's penultimate film (he's announced he'll retire after his next movie, Hit Somebody) then he's truly swinging for the fences on his way out of the park.
The movie absolutely bustles with kinetic energy (which is equally attributable to director of photography David Klein), ratcheting up the tension with each passing shot.
I absolutely love this movie.
Professional detachment be damned, I'm crazy about Red State. I guess I did have the words after all.
Lionsgate brings Red State to Blu-ray with a terrific AVC-4 MPEG 1080P transfer that practically eclipses reference quality (I was there; it looked good on the big screen but not quite this good). In spite of the constant action and movement, the images on-screen are always clearly-defined with no immediate signs of artifacting or banding. The color palate isn't particularly-pleasing, but I suspect that's by the filmmakers' design more than anything else.
In terms of sound, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack is quite good as well (even if it isn't the 7.1 mix that was advertised a few months back). All dialogue is perfectly clear in spite of the raucous action of the third act (and, this being a Smith film, that's a pretty important thing). The clearest transition from the cinema to the Blu-ray player, though, is that borderline-insufferable heartbeat that washes over the center channels in moments of high tension.
While the theater I saw the movie in didn't seem equipped to handle it, the folks at Lionsgate have mixed that sound to perfection.
Beyond the Feature
As with all Kevin Smith releases, the Blu-ray for Red State is chock full of goodies.
The Making of Red State (43:50) - A series of interviews with Smith and the cast isn't exactly what I thought I'd be getting into when I popped the disc in. Smith's making-of doc's tend to delve a little more into the conception process, but this is still a pretty decent documentary, even if bits and pieces of it are cannibalized for some of the other extras.
SModcast Commentaries: Red State of the Union Q&A's - Rather than the usual audio commentary track, the Red State Blu-ray offers 8 hours (!) worth of Smith's Red State of the Union podcast, a series of podcasts Smith recorded before a small audiences featuring interviews with cast and crew. Each podcast featured Smith showing his audience a snippet from the movie followed by a discussion. Frankly, I think this feature would have worked best had it been video-recorded. Playing it over the movie itself and using it as a de facto commentary track makes it a little hard to follow, as the sections being covered in the audio aren't necessarily what's happening on-screen. An almost perfect idea that could have used a little better execution.
Deleted Scenes - The disc contains about 24 minutes' worth of cut or extended footage, including Abin Cooper's Full Sermon (15:55), Touchdown (2:23), and the Original Sundance Ending (6:41). Speaking of Sundance...
The Sundance Speech (35:36) - Here's the speech that started Red State's journey to the general public and made Kevin Smith a virtual pariah on the Internet... again. Love him or hate him, this speech is pretty much guaranteed to wake up the artist inside you to some degree. It's difficult to argue that Smith throwing his cap over the wall isn't inspiring. Not impossible... but damn difficult.
A Conversation with Michael Parks (17:58) - Take an intriguing look at the actor's process as Michael Parks talks a little bit about how he brought Abin Cooper to terrifying life.
Poster Gallery - I dunno what to say here... it is what it's called.
Trailers (3:37) - See Smith's hand-cut teaser trailer as well as a more polished theatrical trailer.
There are plenty of people out there who roundly hated this movie. Whether that has anything to do with the movie itself is open to debate (this being the Internet, I'd argue that it has more to do with the fact that slinging bile at Kevin Smith generates hits).
What can't be argued is that, for good or ill, it's a step in a new direction.
Red State is a solemn, despair-ridden, hopeless bring-down of a movie. And for that, and many other reasons, I love it.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Red State on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 18, 2011 release date).
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