Note: I'm not going to have much blogging time coming up, so the reviews for Red State, A Better Life, and Tower Heist are a little rushed and not as well thought out, coherent, or in depth as I'd have wished.
Prolific writer-director Kevin Smith has made a film that I can't help but feel comes from a personal place of his sometimes-funny, sometimes-disturbed psyche. He hinted at his feelings on religion in Dogma, but I'd argue he hasn't made something that showcases his unique voice since Chasing Amy, and before that Clerks. Red State feels like Silent Bob is raging against many things, but primarily religious radicals and government lackeys who are despicable when it comes to their jobs.
The film follows three small-town teens (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner) who go out one night looking for sex, only to be abducted by the Five Points Church and its pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, who I'm quite sure has to be channeling Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church). When a police officer is shot while investigating the church compound, an ATF agent (John Goodman) is called in to surround the area.
I pretty much walked away from this movie feeling unchanged and conflicted. There are a few things I both admire and dislike about the film, both having to do with how unique this return to an independent production has led Smith to make some off-the-beaten-path choices about how to tell this story.
Michael Parks is the real draw. His sermons are lively, demented, and poetic all at once. The cast is also full of known and lesser-known actors who I recognized immediately (also starring Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Kevin Pollak, and Kevin Alejandro). They are all talented and convincing, although much of the emotional weight of the film lies in the viewpoints and monologues of the characters played by Parks and Goodman (the ensemble has no lead characters with everyone acting in a supporting role to each other). The film's greatest achievement is perhaps its stark cinematography by Smith's regular D.P., Dave Klein.
On the other hand, nothing of importance or consequence ever seems to happen. We witness these extreme events, but for what purpose? We can form our own interpretations, and for that I'm thankful, but the structure of this story never seems to support other choices Smith makes primarily in terms of the pacing. There are occassionally some editing choices (when Root's character is in his office) and a random placement of title cards that only appear maybe once or twice that just feel off (I feel that title cards that just simply say the time and day should probably be removed as they just feel dated and corny if they aren't pertinent to our understanding of the material).
Smith wants us to feel something, I'll be damned if this was made for entertainment purposes, but I don't feel anything from any of the development or even lack of development both in plot and character. Look at Alejandro's character. What spurred his change of heart? Are we not supposed to know?
Smith has always been a much better writer. Horror is however a medium where one's directing instincts seem to be more useful (perhaps that is why this feels more like a thriller and less like a horror film than the marketing and press releases made it out to be). I appreciate Smith's voice and as a viewer who is always looking forward to what he does next, I can't help but acknowledge his wish to flex his proverbial muscles of versatility. This film just doesn't leave any lasting impressions on me. Perhaps it is because I saw in the fall when you have new films from Nicolas Winding Refn, George Clooney, Bennett Miller, Jonathan Levine, Steven Soderbergh, and Gavin O'Connor that were much more thoughtful and emotional than Smith's tale of religion-gone-awry.