After an extremely limited theatre run in December, writer-director Kevin Smith's latest film Red State was released on DVD in this country last week.
The film garnered some attention in January, 2011, when Smith announced he would auction the rights to distribute the film following its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, then promptly sold them to himself for US$20.
I've been intrigued by Red State ever since it was announced - as a horror-thriller it's a radical departure in tone for a filmmaker best known for his potty-mouthed sex comedies.
But I was more interested in the film's potential to redeem Smith creatively. Because let's face it, his last several movies have been terrible.
Smith broke out with his do-it-yourself 1994 indie hit Clerks, then the following year made the requisite "sell-out" film Mallrats, which could be described as a glossy version of Clerks.
He got the best reviews of his career with 1997's Chasing Amy, which I thought was overrated, then courted controversy with 1999's religion-themed Dogma.
I have a soft spot for his 2001 comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which purported to close the book on the View Askew universe, in which all his films up until that point took place.
His first attempt at a mature film was the 2004 debacle Jersey Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Smith often attributed that film's failure to its association with the other Affleck-Lopez mega-flop Gigli, but he repeatedly failed to acknowledge that Jersey Girl is simply a really bad film.
In what could only be perceived as a backwards step, Smith at this point decided to negate his earlier assertion that he was done with the View Askew universe by sequelising his first film, resulting in 2006's Clerks II.
Some saw this as a return to form. I saw it as a new low in Smith's increasingly poor filmography.
The arrested development inherent in all his main characters now serves as an efficient metaphor for his film career - he simply couldn't move beyond his juvenile beginnings.
2008's Zack and Miri Make A Porno initially appeared to represent an opportunity to get back on track, but it too was dire. I got excited when I heard Smith was going to pay homage to '80s action comedies with 2010's Cop Out, but oh boy was that movie a stinker.
Which brings us to Red State. I watched this on DVD last night, and while it stops a touch short of being an unmitigated success, it's definitely the most interesting thing Smith's done in years and represents the biggest step forward in his filmmaking style, since, well, ever.
The film begins with three Middle American teenage boys attempting to organise a sexual rendezvous via a social media website. They head out to meet their sure thing at a trailer park, but soon end up in the clutches of a fanatical church group clearly inspired by the legendarily awful Westboro Baptist Church.
Far-right religious fanaticism in America is a subject ripe for horror movie exploration, and Smith's chosen title suggests he also wanted to address the country's partisan political divide.
With Smith's background in addressing Catholicism in his films (especially Dogma), he would seem to be the right man for the job. But the utter lack of anything resembling subtlety in Red State undermines any metaphors he may have wished to present.
Still, Red State works nicely as a tense, full-on thriller. It took sudden shifts in perspective that kept me on my toes and the story proved waaaay more cynical than I anticipated. Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn) gives an extremely entertaining performance as the pastor of the above mentioned church group, and it was a treat to see John Goodman playing a lawman again.
Smith has always said dialogue above all other aspects of filmmaking was his forte - an assertion I disagree with. His characters often talk like they're reading from a rejected Dawson's Creek-script - overly flowerly articulation with pop culture references and four-syllable words awkwardly crammed in. It rarely seemed naturalistic.
This issue thankfully doesn't come up in Red State, even if the film does occasionally stop dead in its tracks to serve a protracted sermon from Parks' character. The storytelling is what works here, and makes me wish Smith had focused more on plot in his other films.
So does Red State redeem Kevin Smith? Well, it's his best film in ages, and for the first time ever I am interested to see what he does next. He's repeatedly stated that he has retired from filmmaking, but remember he also said he wouldn't go back to the View Askew universe after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and we all know how that turned out.
Smith's extreme openness about himself in his side careers as a podcaster, public speaker and author make him the rare director that lacks any kind of mystique.
But it also makes him relatable, approachable and occasionally inspirational. I hope he does make another movie. Heck, I'd watch a Red State sequel.
* Do you like Kevin Smith films? Or like me, do you think he went off the rails years ago? Seen Red State? Thoughts? Comment below!