Sundance Review: Kevin Smith’s ‘Red State’ A Return to Form

Hollywood veteran Michael Parks delivers a tour-de-force performance as a fundamentalist preacher modeled after Fred Phelps

Sundance creation Kevin Smith totally reinvents himself with "Red State," an unnerving genre mash-up that marks a return to form for the much-maligned (of late) filmmaker.

Keeping the Smith circus out of this review is difficult, because the hype and my personal affection for most of Smith's films undoubtedly colors it, but the truth is that "Red State" straight up delivered the goods I was hoping for, plus much more. Namely, a deliciously magnetic performance from Hollywood veteran Michael Parks as a fundamentalist preacher who loves to hate.

Parks plays Pastor Abin Cooper as a kind of religious boogeyman who the local news and high school teachers talk about in mythic terms. He may be modeled after Rev. Fred Phelps, but as Smith's screenplay points out, Phelps is a suer, while Abin, well … he's a doer.

The story begins with three horny teens (ringleader Kyle Gallner, sidekick Michael Angarano and intriguing newcomer Nicholas Braun as the requisite oaf) who take to the Internet to get laid.

Gallner finds an older woman online who is looking to have sex … not only with him, but with his two buddies, and at the same time no less. During their cross-town drive, the teenage trio sideswipe a squad car in which the town sheriff (Stephen Root) is secretly (to some) engaging in homosexual activity.

When the boys arrive in the backwards town of Coopers Dell, their future conquest (Melissa Leo) offers them a few beers which are conspicuously already open. Waking up from the drugged drinks, they find themselves captive in a church, at the mercy of a mad preacher who considers them sinners in the eyes of the Lord.

That's when things really take a turn for the worse, and we witness the lengths Abin's fervent followers will go to in the name of God.

Of the hundreds of "Red State" tweets I read tonight, one from Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, stood out. He said that "Red State" "mashes up torture porn and 'Saving Private Ryan' to bait both church & state," and I can get behind that description. The first half of "Red State" feels like Kevin Smith's take on "Hostel," while the second half plays like a Waco-under-siege movie that recalls the flashbacks in "Arlington Road."

The true surprise for this longtime Smith fan was how effective the first few death scenes were. The violence is so abrupt that each one is accutely felt, and Smith's impressive use of sound and editing makes them really hurt. The action was also aided by David Klein's cinematography, which gave "Red State" a compelling visual style that Smith's previous films have lacked, not that it was ever a serious detriment.

Speaking of the violence, the first murder is, pardon the pun, quite suffocating, and something I can't really remember seeing onscreen before, so bonus points for originality are in order. The second is perhaps the most surprising, if only because it signals the hopelessness that lies ahead. The third is the most shocking, with the woman sitting right behind me at the Eccles screaming at a remarkable volume, to the point where I wanted to tell her, 'relax, it's only a movie.'

In a more pleasant surprise, Coen brothers regular John Goodman gets nearly as much screen time as Parks, and proves himself a great addition to Smith's talent stable. He plays a mid-level ATF agent tasked with exterminating a 'domestic terrorist cell,' for better or worse. His character represents the audience, questioning the moral implications of the orders he's been given … and those that he gives.

Leo acts like we've never seen her before (her character is a true believer, to put it lightly) and Kerry Bishe makes a memorable impression as her conscientious daughter who will do anything to save the children stuck inside the church.

As for Parks, he flat-out steps up and puts the movie on his 70-year-old shoulders. I loved the brief glimpses of Abel that Smith shows early on, before we really know who he is, and I also liked that we only heard his voice on the news, making his introduction moments later that much more powerful.

By the end of the film, Parks is wearing a wild-eyed, absolutely daffy-looking grin on his face, just begging to be shot. He looks positively insane, howling at the heavens, waiting for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to arrive.

When I spoke to Parks two weeks ago, I had no idea what to expect from his performance, but he really surprised me with his amazing work in the film. Honestly, the first person I thought about while watching him was Hannibal Lecter, another movie villain who simply had to open his mouth to get people to kill.

Sure, Abel's opening sermon is a little long, but by the end of the nearly 15-minute monologue, I was legitimately asking myself, 'could Parks be a Best Actor contender next year?' While I don't think I can go quite that far since the second half of the film lets him down a bit, he shines in the final scene and closing credits, which are notable for two reasons — not only does Parks sing (and quite well, too), but if you listen closely, you can hear Smith telling him to 'shut the f**k up,' not that I'll spoil the context of that interaction.

What I will say is that "Red State" is more or less bookended by Classic Smith. The beginning of the film finds the teens eating lunch at school, talking about how they plan to get laid, while the finale sees Goodman answering to his smug, Patriot Act-loving superiors. Both scenes feature the provocative dialogue we've come to know and love from Smith over the years.

Is "Red State" a little messy? Sure. But Smith deserves credit for taking a major creative risk and stepping outside of his View Askew comfort zone. Sure, I'm a fan, but I'm also objective. Am I going to sit here and tell you with a straight face that "Jersey Girl" and "Cop Out" were "good" movies. Hell, no! But there were still moments in those movies where Smith's voice shone through and remained irresistible. Whether it was George Carlin or Tracy Morgan, those movies had something to offer, even if it ultimately wasn't enough.

Personally, I feel that Smith has as unique a cinematic voice as the Coen brothers, and he is every bit the national treasure they are despite not boasting any Oscars or $50 million domesic grossers, which come to think of it, is fairly new territory for the Coens anyway.

The truth is that I didn't really know what to expect from "Red State," but regardless, I still had high expectations and am pleased to report that the film lived up to them. There's money to be made in "Red State" (which only cost $4 million) because it brings something new to the genre, and that something is faith. I can't really say I've seen anything like it before, except for an episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" that I barely remember.

I've been hearing about Smith's plans for "Red State" for what seems like years, and after "Cop Out" became his highest-grossing movie, he decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do "one for him." I think it's an encouraging sign that "Red State" is what he decided to go off and make, and I look forward to seeing him re-embrace his humble indie roots with the hockey comedy "Hit Somebody," which will feature much of the same cast as "Red State," including Braun.

"Red State" doesn't necessarily feel like a "Kevin Smith" film, yet it retains a clear sense of authorship. Smith seems to have really challenged and pushed himself with this film, and if this is what Silent Bob has in store for fans in the future, then sign me up for more.