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Sundance Review: Kevin Smith, “Red State” and Selling Out To Himself

Sundance Review: Kevin Smith, "Red State" and Selling Out To Himself

Kevin Smith was wasting everyone’s time and loving every minute of it. Standing on the stage of the Eccles Theater after the premiere of his new movie “Red State” on Sunday night, the director unloaded a 33-minute monologue about the progress of the indie business over the course of the 17 years since the legendary debut of “Clerks” at Sundance in 1993. Things have changed, Smith explained, then announced that he would release his latest work on his own. “Root for us if you will,” he said. “Hate us if you must.”

Most people were just annoyed. In the weeks running up to the premiere, Smith had generated major expectations for a public hoopla during the Q&A, when he would allegedly auction off the rights to his uncharacteristically bleak horror-thriller. Technically, he did; Smith invited producer John Gordon to the stage and asked him to start off the bidding, at which point Smith offered $20. Sold!

Smith intends to launch “The Red State Tour” March 5, traveling around the country with the movie and generating word-of-mouth in the months running up to the theatrical release October 19, the 17th anniversary of the opening date for “Clerks.” “I was raised Catholic,” Smith said. “I carry a lot of guilt about spending other people’s money.”

It’s hard to imagine “Red State” finding a better home. While unlike anything Smith has done before, it’s also a resoundingly familiar genre movie that first revolves around the abduction and murder of several teenagers before indulging in murky run-and-gun action tropes. It skewers Christian fundamentalism and homeland security alike, signaling Smith’s most overt attempt to offend since “Dogma.” The ever-present Sundance question of how it will it play? is all but irrelevant here: It will play like a Kevin Smith movie, catering to his devoted fans and hardly anyone else, so clearly it has fallen into the right hands.

“Red State” was met with a handful of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church shouting to the wind outside the Eccles, an act pitted against counter-protesting high schoolers and a rebuttal from Smith in person. But the director had reason to embrace the extremist presence, since the first scene of “Red State” includes a caricature of that exact same homophobic spectacle. Smith famously joined the picketers when “Dogma” came out in 1999; now, he has done that legacy one better by tricking them into promoting his work.

The story revolves around a psychotic priest (Michael Parks) who leads his deluded parish to capture gay youth and other sexually active teens. Tying them up in the inner lair of his church, he gleefully murders the boys in the name of God. The priest’s scheme hits a roadblock when the police suddenly take notice and a cantankerous tactical agent (John Goodman) sets up shop outside the church, where one of the kidnapped teen fights for his life.

Made for $4 million over the course of 25 days last fall, “Red State” would probably find a home at genre festivals and on DVD if it came from a no-name filmmaker. Despite admirably intense performances by Goodman, Parks and Melissa Leo (as a gun-wielding churchgoer), the movie can’t seem to settle on a specific tone. Shot on digital video and sporting a high contrast, ultra-gritty palette, the movie runs the gamut from suspense to camp and back again.

Unsurprisingly, Smith’s satiric indulgences work better than his attempts at inducing fear. After an early, effective scene in which the kidnapped teen (Nicholas Braun) wakes up in a cage to the sound of choir music, Smith allows the sensationally tense Parks to take over with a rambling, demented sermon about how “god bores the wicked” and has begun to strike back with global disasters.

He mentions the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, dating the project with a reference point that might have seemed fresher when Smith originally announced his plan to make “Red State” in 2006. Still, the scene works far better than the eventual explosion of bullets in the final third. Smith ends on an amusingly topical note, meting out justice against his villains with an appropriately smarmy line of dialogue: “Patriot Act, bitch.”

But try putting that on a poster. Smith, noting at the “Red State” premiere that it took “Clerks” seven years to make a profit after Miramax snatched it up at Sundance, claimed that he “wouldn’t have even tried making ‘Clerks’ today.” Now, he can set his own terms. His nearly 20-year progress from a specialty distributor’s wet dream to DIY distributor makes sense. With relatively deep pockets and millions of fans interacting with him via Twitter and weekly podcasts, Smith already has enough access to audiences and financial versatility to function as a small scale distribution outfit. Buried in his innovative release strategy, he’s actually doing nothing new.

The key to Smith’s approach has been explored elsewhere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Morgan Spurlock’s breezy study of American brands, fully titled “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” follows the documentarian as he attempts to finance the movie exclusively through product placement. Revealing the extent to which brands permeate all mass media, Spurlock ends with the simplistic conclusion that branding is inevitable and makes peace with it.

Kevin Smith has done the same thing, basically using his brand to sell “Red State” even as he promotes its differences from his other work. No matter that the comical Smithean dialogue in “Red State” succeeds far more than the gunfire and brimstone. The brand sells itself by pretending to deviate from it: See Smith as you’ve never seen him before! “We have to learn how to release movies,” Smith said at the premiere, but he was really just talking about himself.

“Smith spent 15 minutes shitting all over those buyers in the crowd,” reported Deadline today. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. Essentially four-walling theaters around the country, as many filmmakers uninterested in conventional distribution have done before him, the filmmaker reminded everyone that he won’t sell out to anyone—except Kevin Smith.

criticWIRE grades:

“Red State”: B

“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”: B-

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