Writer and director Kevin Smith prides himself on being a genuinely cool guy, even more than being a filmmaker. Through interviews, Q and As and the endless stream of podcasts he releases through his website, he’s proven that his primary interest is talking about his life, dishing about his geeky interests and relating to any fan who cares to hear. That’s why he’s managed to retain a devoted audience despite spending the last decade struggling to move past the films that earned him a following in the first place.
Smith is now focusing on his new film, “Red State,” which screened at the Little Theatre in Rochester this past Sunday as part of a nationwide film tour. Rather than simply releasing “Red State” through regular distribution, Smith has been personally screening his film throughout the year, followed by live audience Q and As . The Little Theatre didn’t exactly get in on the whole “live” part — instead, it was one of about 20 theatres across the country that featured “Red State” for a one-night-only screening, and subsequently connected to a live video feed of Smith’s Q and As, as he spoke from a movie theater in California.
“Red State” is a horror movie about a unique kind of monster: a gay-hating, fear-mongering, Westboro-Baptist-Church-on-steroids cult of fundamentalist Christians called the Five Points Church, who picket funerals and otherwise terrorize their humble middle America town. At first, their reign of terror means little to Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), Randy (Ronnie Connell) and Travis (Michael Angarano), three high school students primarily concerned with scouring the Internet in hopes of getting laid. Sara (Melissa Leo), a woman who claims to be ready to fulfill their every desire, seems to answer all of their prayers until they travel out to the woods to meet her.
Sara turns out to be one of the key members of the Five Point Church, which has kidnapped the boys as part of a grander scheme to really drive their teachings home to the world’s sinners, i.e. everyone. Think “Hostel,” with a crazy ass God fixation.
From there, the film gets nastier and more violent, escalating from mere torture porn to Waco-style warfare. I won’t go into specifics — one of the greatest, creepiest joys of this film is seeing just how far beyond mere intimidation the Five Point Church ends up going. What really sticks out, though, is the film’s style. Recently, Smith has struggled to find a new project that actually proves his talent as a director — which led him to unwisely direct last year’s miserably average “Cop Out” from a script he didn’t write. Here, he seems completely confident in his abilities. “Red State” is gritty, thoroughly exciting and, most impressively, very in control of its mood.
Between the non-stop violence and the pure insanity of its subjects, the film perpetually feels like it’s just about to veer so over the top that it won’t recover. But “Red State” remains, through and through, a well-made, well-acted, darkly funny horror film. There are some big flaws here — the shoot-’em-up action feels endless and the social commentary ranges from profound to Oliver Stone levels of obvious — but overall, it’s a more impassioned film than anyone, Smith fan or not, had any right to expect.
For the Q&A, the night’s nationwide viewers were asked to tweet questions to Smith from their smart phones, and he answers them in real time. Questions and potshot comments (why yes, he is fat) poured in by the second, and while it was a cool idea, it was all in vain. Smith is one hell of a rambler, so, even though the Q&A lasted longer than his actual movie, he ended up answering a grand total five questions.
The final question was the simplest of the night: A fan asked if Smith planned to film next year’s “Hit Somebody” — which he has declared is his final film — on digital video, as he did for “Red State.” He spent some time going through the technical nitty-gritty of his filmmaking experience but finally, at some point, got to a much larger point: Today’s technology should enable all aspiring filmmakers to just go out and pursue their dreams, like he did 17 years ago with “Clerks.” Smith said he had “no discernable talent,” and that the only difference between him and anyone in the audience is that he had the will to just damn it all and make a film. These final comments were truly encouraging — it’s as if Smith feels his purpose isn’t to make great films, but to inspire others to make great films. Whether people loved or hated “Red State,” and whether they followed along with his answers or totally spaced out, it was in that closing speech that he proved why he’ll always be a fascinating subject.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.