WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was written back in 2011.
On August 19, 2011, Kevin Smith began a one-week run of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema making it eligible for Academy Awards consideration. Smith also came to just about every showing there to do a Q&A afterwards as he came to love “sitting back and loudly appreciating the movie.” Of course, this led one audience member to confront him at a local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and say, “You were yelling ‘genius’ at your own movie?”
“Red State” is astonishingly different from any movie Smith has previously helmed including the Bruce Willis starring “Cop Out.” This is largely the result of him and his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, who also shot “Clerks,” making use of the Red One digital camera. Smith said he loved chasing around the set with it, and he remarked how the camera looked like something out of “The Bourne Identity.” Smith, however, was aiming for “Red State” to look more like “Half Nelson” and less like “NYPD Blue,” and he told Klein him he wanted it to look unlike any movie they had made before. To this, Klein said, “Thank God!”
Smith felt he improved as a filmmaker with the Red One, and he figured the company which made them would give him one for free. However, it turned out getting a free camera was as likely as getting anything for free from Apple.
When it came to the actors, Smith saw himself as more of a cheerleader than a director. He made this blunt in saying, “You don’t direct mother fuckers like these! Who am I to tell John Goodman or Melissa Leo about acting?!”
The actor he talked about most was Michael Parks who played Abin Cooper, Pastor of the Five Points Trinity Church, a highly fanatical and conservative church which makes the Westboro Baptist Church look tame by comparison. Smith, like many of us, first saw him as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and he declared that Parks “owned the first ten minutes” of it. Parks, however, told Smith he didn’t want impersonate Fred Phelps as he described him as being “boring.” Instead, Parks wanted Cooper to be “charismatic,” and his brilliant performance has Phelps only wishing he could be as such.
Speaking of the Phelps family, five of them came to a midnight screening of the movie. Or at least, five of them planned to until Megan Phelps contacted Smith and asked for 15 more tickets. Smith couldn’t resist having a laugh at the inescapable contradiction:
“God may hate fags, but the Lord loves a bargain!”
Megan described “Red State” as being “filthy” even though she kept watching it for ten minutes as a gift to Smith before walking out. She did, however, send him a couple of signs with the sayings “God Hates Fag Enablers” and “Red State Fags” on them. Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, ordered him to throw them out, but he pointed out they were signed by all the WBC church members. Their daughter Harley ended up coming across the “Red State Fags” sign by accident. While he and his wife were looking at each other, Harley asked them, “Is this the sequel?”
Kevin Smith said “Red State” exists because of Quentin Tarantino. The Madonna speech at the beginning of “Reservoir Dogs” was such a big thing to him, and it made filmmaking seem all the more fun and possible to do. He sees “Red State” as the “true spiritual sequel” to “Clerks,” and he has had a joyous experience taking it out on the road. It’s very easy to believe to him when he said no one has had a bad experience with a premium ticket they bought for it.
It feels like it has been forever since we have seen Haley Joel Osment in anything. Ever since his unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance as Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” he has gone on to do memorable work in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” “Pay it Forward” and “Secondhand Lions” in which he co-starred with the actor who beat him out for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Sir Michael Caine. But after that, he disappeared to where we thought he had become just another child actor who couldn’t make the transition to an adult acting career like Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster did.
Well, it turns out he was away at New York University studying experimental theater, and this later led to him making his Broadway debut in a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” These days he does a lot of voiceover work, he has a recurring role on the Amazon series “Alpha House” and he is starring in Kevin Smith’s latest film “Tusk.” In it, he plays Teddy Craft who, along with his friend Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), hosts a podcast show called “The Not-See Party.” When Wallace suddenly goes missing while he’s in Canada, Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend Ally Leon (Génesis Rodríguez) travel there to find him, and what they discover is… Well, just see the movie.
Osment looks like he’s having a lot of fun as Teddy, and you really get the sense he is a natural for podcasting. “Tusk” is certainly one of the weirder and more original movies to come out in a while, and he explained what drew him to it.
“The writing was so good,” Osment said of Smith’s screenplay. “The characters were clear and then he (Smith) kind of does this cool thing where, once he got to know us on set, he would just generate material based on just starting to know us more. He wrote that great monologue for Genesis and an extended podcasting scene for me and Justin. He will answer any question you ask him, but his big thing was always saying ‘remember to have fun’ and stuff like that. He isn’t someone saying, ‘Hey, remember to get this part of the character’ or something. He trusts his actors to do that.”
For me, I was very interested in how Osment made the transition to becoming an adult actor. It’s never easy, and Hollywood does have a reputation for chewing up actors and spitting them out. But Osment has come out on the other side looking like a wonderfully down to earth human being, and he remains a terrific actor after all these years. When I asked him how tough his career transition was, his response was simple and to the point.
“As an actor, I feel really lucky because I have been lucky enough to have a lot of experiences on sets and still be relatively young,” Osment said. “It’s fun because your body is kind of your instrument and, if you’re getting old over a period of time and everything, I just remember doing characters as a kid. Now being an adult and having a romantic interest and things like that, the variety is just really exciting so I guess I feel lucky.”
Seriously, it’s great to see Osment keeping busy. I imagine we will see a lot more of him soon, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.
She has left her mark in a number of Telemundo telenovelas as well as in movies like “Identity Thief,” “The Last Stand” and “Casa de mi Padre,” but in Kevin Smith’s “Tusk,” Génesis Rodríguez shows the world just how good of an actress she can be. She plays Ally Leon, the girlfriend of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), and she tries to make him see what a selfish person he has become thanks to the fame his podcast “The Not-See Party” has brought him. But as much as Ally criticizes his shortcomings, she is reduced to tears when she accepts the fact they come to mirror her own.
“Tusk” has been the subject of a lot of talk ever since Smith announced it as his next project. The idea came about from an episode of “SModcast” where he and co-host Scott Mosier read an ad about a man offering a rent-free situation for a tenant who is willing to dress up as a walrus and make walrus sounds all day long. It makes for one of the more unique movies, and many were eager to find out what exactly drew the actors to be in it.
Rodríguez was at “Tusk’s” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and she was asked about her initial reaction to Smith’s screenplay.
“Reading the script, I made the big mistake of reading it at midnight,” Rodríguez said with a laugh. “I know, big mistake, so I couldn’t go to sleep. I literally thought about the walrus all night. I started listening to The Beatles and it was just like I went ‘goo goo goo goo joob’ totally. And then afterward I heard the SModcast episode and then I became obsessed with the idea. It was like, okay, this is the kind of movie I want to do. It’s clearly not a remake (laughs) so it’s good to be a part of something so unique and so different and to leave your little mark on such I thought was gonna be, the minute I read it, a cult favorite whether you hate it or love it. It’s that kind of movie. It’s memorable, that’s for sure (laughs).”
For me, the highlight of Rodríguez’s performance was her close-ups in which she confesses to Long her confused emotions which are tearing her apart. It turns out Smith, once he got to know her better, wrote a monologue for her to perform, and she ends up performing it in a truly riveting fashion. Seeing the stream of emotions crossing her face during this close-up held my attention to where everything else around me went completely silent. I was eager to learn how she pulled this monologue and the close ups off, and her answer implied it involved her not knowing one specific thing.
“Thankfully, I didn’t know how close up they were,” Rodríguez said of the cameras. “It kind of freaked me out, but I just let the dialogue guide me to an emotion and I tried to make it as honest as possible. I’ve never had that shot to really show that side of myself in the movies, so I just wanted to do Kevin justice, and he took a chance on writing me that monologue. I hope I did him proud.”
To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.
Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.
When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.
As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.
I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.
Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.
Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.
We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.
Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.
It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”
“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.
It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.
I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.
“Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.
The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.
The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.
The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.
With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.
Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.
Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.
Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.
This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.
Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.
Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.