Saw Red State last Monday at the Paramount Theater in Austin for free as part of my ongoing "Master Class" (think Inside The Actor's Studio but with filmmakers) and said I'd write up some thoughts so here it is, better late than never.
First, the movie:
It feels like a few different movies jammed into one. Some of them are kinda good, most of them are pretty bad but it was ultimately more worthwhile than I expected given Smith's recent output.
After a few minutes of familiar Smith dialogue in the mouths of our horny teenage leads, the first hour or so is pretty indistinguishable from the Hostel movies or Texas Chainsaw remake or your standard cheapie exploitation horror flick. If you like those movies I think you'll really enjoy this, but I don't, so didn't. It was pretty uninvolving and predictable for a long stretch there. Not especially bad, just a pretty tired genre exercise not bringing too much new to the table besides a semi-topical real world spin.
Then things get more interesting when John Goodman and the ATF show up and it becomes an overt if muddled political message movie for awhile. Here, I appreciated that Smith was trying to at least do something different and though blatantly, inelegantly presented, the themes involved are interesting ones. The problem is Smith knows he really wants to say something about the first amendment and religious freedom and terrorism, he just doesn't know what that is. His movie's also a little hypocritical about violence. It clearly wants us to think what the ATF is doing is wrong, but at the same time is manufactured to produce cheers when they score a kill.
I think if he wanted to explore issues relating to free speech and hate crimes, gun control and religious extremism, domestic terrorism and indefinite detention, he could've done that far more effectively if he made his crazy church antagonist more like their real-life counterparts - homophobic hatemongers pushing everyone's buttons - and not turned them into a clan of depraved kidnappers and killers. That kinda diffuses a lot of Smith's argument because - well, the church presented are terrorists - they kidnap and torture and kill people based on their religious beliefs with the intent of instilling fear in the gay community. Greater shades of gray would have added both complexity and sense to Smith's message, but as is, despite all the emphasis he placed on the political content, he seems to include it more as a facile throwaway tossed into a simple shoot-em-up.
But I digress, the entrance of the overt politics and ATF also introduces some welcome plot turns and some compelling one-on-ones between the lead and the pastor's granddaughter and Goodman and his chief underling. Then it devolves into a protracted, repetitive, dull and pedestrian action scene with two sides firing rifles at each other for around 10 minutes without much else happening.... Then it gets really interesting again for a moment with shades of a brilliant Michael Tolkin ending that made me sit up, lean forward, take note... then it cheats, kinda rips off the Coen Brothers (you'll know what I mean when you see it) and does a decent but less successful job of it than they did. Then it's over without a very satisfying resolution.
The picture is a strange move for Smith and though there are definitely moments that fit right in with the rest of his career, it is indeed a major departure.
Visually, it's arguably his most accomplished work, but that says more about his prior deficit than any skill on display here. He's basically mastered the cheap and easy shakycam technique for the picture (one shot inside a covered cage is effective though) while his work with actors is the worst I've seen from him (besides Goodman and having spared myself from Cop Out). From a screenwriting perspective, the movie's structure is a mess and the dialogue is about as bland as Smith has gotten save one decent final speech.
Tonally the movie is all over the place and its big set piece that Smith is most proud of, a loooooooooooong (10+ minutes) monologue by Michael Parks, is poorly written, poorly performed (and I'm a big fan of Parks other work) and grinds the movie to a halt. There are at least a half dozen other moments that work pretty well sprinkled throughout and Goodman especially is a hoot whenever he's onscreen.
Ultimately it's the best thing I've seen from Smith since Jersey Girl, but doesn't suggest to me he has any promise left as a filmmaker or has really grown, so much as just branched out. I'm glad I saw it I think, but wouldn't want to have to see it again and would only recommend it to fans of Smith and B horror. The audience I saw it with, made up of just such a crowd, seemed to eat up every minute for what it's worth.
I'd give it a 5.5/10
As for Smith at the Q&A, I used to really like the dude and he still had a couple good lines, but his self-deprecating humor seemed less sincere now, his stories less coherent and focused, and his general arrogance, inexplicable sense of victimhood, and belief that the film was a masterpiece with a serious and important message needing to be heard came across pretty strong. It was off-putting as often as it was informative or entertaining. I tried to go in with an open mind and with low expectations thought it was better than I was initially afraid it may be, but after seeing it and his last few movies, I'm glad he's retiring from filmmaking.
I jotted down some notes, I thought about expanding on them but can't find the interest, so for now I'll just share the bullet points:
-Smith has lost weight since last I saw him. Still very heavy, but doesn't look morbidly obese in person.
-He still seemed nice enough, like a decent person, very appreciative of the fans and the reception there, but was not very funny and rambled even more than I'd expected having seen him before and watched his Evenings With series.
Smith described Red State as "a series of chairs he upends to put the leg up your ass... each time you get fucked, I offer you a new chair and then...a new leg up your ass." He said the entire thing is designed to be unsettling.
He was trying to do his version of a Tarantino movie by way of the Coens, with subtle differences from what's normal constantly, enjoyed "playing tricks" on the audience.
Among those tricks are that the film has no score. He didn't want a score to dictate the audience's emotions and tell them how to feel, but "let you stew in how you feel." Though when he heard Parks singing on set, he decided he wanted him to sing many hymns throughout the film and would during downtime just have him improv a song, hence their frequent presence.
He also delighted in crossing the axis, there's a lot of that in the film, also utilized jump cuts, used a take where snot protrudes from Melissa Leo's nose. Wanted "mistakes" present and prevalent.
He invited Westboro Baptist to a screening in Kansas City, if Meagan (Fred Phelps daughter) would come on stage afterward. Gave the Phelps clan 15 tickets, they took their kids including toddlers, and during his opening talk he was able to work the audience by constantly referring to them and joking at their expense. They were his "Jack Nicholson at the Oscars."
They thought the movie was "filthy" and left after 10 minutes, before any of the violence or real church scenes, because of the "pussy-centric" dialogue.
Two former Westboro Baptist members raised their hands during the Q&A afterward. They had left, "escaped," the church and said much of what Smith presented, besides the violence, was accurate. Smith said both of these people were enormously sympathetic and kind and it was then that he realized the church really was a cult.
There were high school kids at the counter protest and Smith loved them. Their signs read things like "God hates homework" and "No Ewoks" and they chanted Lady Gaga lyrics to drown out Westboro Baptist.
AMC wants to exhibit the movie, they saw it at the Phelps protest screening in Kansas City. He described their protests at Park City and Kansas City as them making "great marketing partners."
He called Red State "an art film...a 90's independent film" (it's not) that people just don't want to see anymore.
Never meant for Red State to play wide, only meant to play to "his audience". He wasn't paid for it and doesn't expect to make money on it.
He loves to watch the audience watch the movie and the tour has "recharged his batteries" but he's still confident he wants to get out of directing.
Clerks to J&SBSB were all movies that he came up with in his house in the Highlands. Those were stories he "had to tell," used as conversation-starters with an audience, couldn't not make. After that, he had to start generating material like everyone else in Hollywood and felt disconnected from much of it. He was quick to say he never "phoned it in" but it was just him trying to make movies up rather than having a strong story he felt he had to get out. He said he ran out of shit to say and he's not made for "making movies up" like other filmmakers.
Directing for him is "like putting on a suit." He's not comfortable doing it and it usually doesn't look good (that got some laughs). He described going from Clerks and the Askewniverse films to making other movies as "like taking 2 years of high school Spanish and then trying to be an interpreter at the UN."
He knows his fans get a lot of shit for liking his movies and said in the hierarchy of not respected directors it goes Uwe Boll, then him.
A fluke let him have a career. Weinstein wanted to piss off people who told him his movies would have to be safe when Miramax got bought by Disney, so he looked for and released the crudest thing he could find. Smith "got into Hollywood through the glory hole" (best line of the night).
None of his movies make him wince, he can justify why he did each one, why it was essential to his growth as a human being and artist, but he wants to avoid ever making something he looks at and admits he did for the money (apparently Cop Out is not this?).
He realized awhile ago he wanted to quit, but wants to bookend his career with movies he has to say, that matter to him. Hit Somebody will be the culmination of what he started to say in Clerks, his "thesis film."
"Film is too expensive a medium to convey an idea, so I'm out."
That about wraps it up.