In 1994, this strange little black and white movie called Clerks entered my VCR, and changed the way I thought about movies forever. The movie’s director, Kevin Smith, wrote an entire movie that entertained mostly through dialogue, and almost all of that dialogue was about sex and drugs. Smith portrayed the character Silent Bob, half of the stoner duo Jay and Silent Bob (who had small but particular roles in the next two Smith movies, and a prominent role in Dogma before getting their only feature film, 2001′s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.) Clerks was an independent success, and is still a sort of rite of passage with college kids, nearly 20 years later.
It didn’t take Smith too long to feel his first failure, as his sophomore effort Mallrats was panned by critics and ignored at the box office. Smith jokingly apologized to critics for the film, and strangely enough the film eventually found its footing through VHS and DVD sales (for the record, ‘Rats is my favorite Smith movie.) Smith’s success waxed and waned through his nearly 20 year career, enjoying highs (his third film Chasing Amy, the aforementioned J&SBSB) and many lows (Jersey Girl, Cop Out,the Clerks animated TV show, protests over Dogma – though it was still a moderate box office hit.) Even if Smith has never had a theatrical smash hit, he’s always had a loyal cult following – comprised mostly of film wannabes and stoners – who bought up the action figures, comics, and shirts with such tenacity that Smith owned two boutique/comic stores, all in the name of the mini-empire he created.
Since 2001, my faith in Smith has dwindled almost to the point of no return. I own two copies of both Clerks and Mallrats on DVD, yet when I had the chance to purchase 2008′s Zack and Miri Make a Porno for a paltry $5 at Best Buy recently, I left it on the shelf. I do get a kick out of his Q&A DVDs, and with his recent announcement to retire from directing, I think it would be a wise career move to continue the series; if there is one thing Smith is still good at, it’s telling a funny story.
When it was announced that his next (and apparently penultimate) film was to be Red State – a horror film – my skepticism was high, expecting it to be some dumb ripoff of every stupid torture porn film that fill theaters these days. After all, it didn’t take long for Smith to jump ship and begin using cameos and sight gags to elicit laughter, something he used to be able to do just through well-timed, witty and sometimes smart dialogue. Red State kept getting pushed back, leading me to believe this was to be Smith’s first direct to video film (though it has a September 22nd theatrical release date, you can rent it through Zune and iTunes.)
Smith’s 10th movie delves into fresh ground for the 41-year-old film maker, though I’m not convinced he is ready for what he started out to accomplish. The plot is simple enough – three high school boys plan to meet up with an older woman who will have sex with all three of them. Once they arrive, they’re in a whole new world, ruled by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a David Koresh-type religious fanatic who is waging a holy war on queers and fornicators. Cooper’s followers are made up of only family members, so they can’t be infiltrated by the authorities. When federal agents catch wind that Cooper has finally gone too far, ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) is called in defuse the situation and live with the outcome, whether he believes in it or not.
The film starts off and ends like any typical Smith film, plenty of juvenile jokes about sex and prison rape, proving that despite new territory, Smith’s still not matured enough as a film maker to make a good film without dick jokes. These jokes, however, have no place in this movie and make it frustrating to watch. The film takes a different, and refreshing, tone once they show up to get it on. Perhaps the writer in Smith hasn’t grown up enough to leave the dirty talk for another movie, but as a director he efficiently demonstrates his progression into deeper techniques. His camera work is top-notch, which can be accredited to the parallel progression of cinematographer and frequent collaborator David Klein.
Like the camera shots, his actors also appear to have lost the static personality so prominent in his previous work. As I write this I note to myself its very unfair to compare this to his previous work, whereas one-dimensional characters and mise en scene photography are okay in a comedy, they have no place in action/thrillers, and this movie is nothing like his previous work. In between all the crude dialogue that envelops the movie is the good film, the one I wish I had seen from beginning to end. It’s very terse, tight, and even shocking. This is real, no holds barred stuff. It works as a true thriller, too, as I found myself invested in the dilemmas Keenan and other characters faced.
This isn’t the first time Smith stuck his neck out to make a religious film, before the release of Dogma it had already created controversy and the director, then a newly married and father of a newborn, received death threats before the movie even came out. Red State is sure to cause an uproar at some point going into its theatrical release, as sensationalists are standing by to jump all over the religious themes and direct aim at zealots. I commend Smith for sticking with the subject matter and making another film, this time one that may even deserve the notoriety it may receive, should people even care enough to notice Smith made another film. I also give him credit for knowing his source material enough to build a convincing crazy preacher who quotes scripture at the drop of a hat and not just phoning in a script full of made up drivel. Though not his best work, Red State is a solid film and with some practice, Smith shouldn’t have much trouble making a decent follow-up to this, hopefully this time without the childish humor he’s relied on so much. Assuming, of course, he’s even still making movies.