'Red State' (R)

The startling Red State proves that everything you knew — or thought you knew — about Kevin Smith is wrong. Ever since the writer-director exploded onto the independent film scene with the no-budget comedy Clerks, Smith has amassed a body of work that occasionally ventured into daring territory (the controversial Catholic satire Dogma) or earnest drama (Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl).

No matter the subject of his pictures, though, Smith was always, first and foremost, trying to make you laugh. Although his movies were rarely much to look at — the self-deprecating filmmaker was always the first one to admit he wasn’t really a director and didn’t know what he was doing — his hilariously profane and vulgar humor, combined with his razor-sharp wit, earned him a devoted following.

But something happened to Smith after Cop Out, the Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan buddy comedy he was hired to direct for a major studio. The movie was greeted by some of the worst reviews of Smith’s career, and even his loyal cult grumbled that their idol had sold out. Red State, which Smith financed independently (the film cost $4 million) feels like the work of an artist throwing caution to the wind, rediscovering himself and finding out what he’s really capable of. This is a brutally effective horror movie that takes many of the themes found throughout Smith’s canon — horny teenagers, religion, authority, rebellion — and turns them on their head. Red State is as profane and anti-establishment as any of his other films, but the stakes are infinitely higher this time: This Kevin Smith movie has an astonishing body count.

The premise is simple: Three randy high-school kids (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) meet an older woman (The Fighter’s Melissa Leo) online who promises to satisfy all of the boys’ urges. Faster than you can say Porky’s, the trio hightails it to the woman’s remote trailer home, where she welcomes them warmly and offers them beers. But the drinks are spiked and the teens are rendered unconscious. When they awake, they realize they have stumbled onto the turf of Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a religious zealot so hardcore he makes Fred Phelps seem like a Girl Scout.

In a tour-de-force sermon that runs more than 10 minutes, Cooper preaches to his flock — true believers who have circled their wagons to keep the outside world at bay — and spouts warnings about the end of days, the sin of homosexuality, the belief that humanity has deteriorated so badly there are no morals or values left. Parks’ performance in the scene is a triumph: You can’t take your eyes off this silver-tongued lunatic, who speaks in a seductive, enticing purr. Also troubling is a body covered with a sheet tied to a cross near the altar where Cooper is standing — the body of a person who is clearly very much alive, but probably not for long.

Red State is the kind of movie where any character can die at any moment — try to guess who will be alive by the end credits and you’ll probably be wrong — and Smith, who shot much of the film using handheld digital cameras, pulls off several sequences you would have never guessed he had in him, including a foot chase inside cramped quarters that recalls a similar sequence in Point Break. Eventually, the authorities show up, led by John Goodman, and the situation deteriorates into a Waco-like standoff. You dread the inevitable loss of life that will come, but Smith surprises you there, too, mercilessly killing off noble and evil characters with the same random, avenging-angel fury.

Near the end of Red State, something incredible happens that made me lean forward in my seat, my mouth hanging open, wondering if Smith was actually going to go there. If he had pursued that potentially mind-blowing twist, Red State would have become the gutsiest, most daring film of the year. Sadly, that doesn’t happen: Smith shies away from the tantalizing development and the story comes to a much more traditional close, obviously inspired by the end of No Country for Old Men. But even if Red State misses greatness, the movie is still a huge revelation — proof that the pressure of a studio watching his every movie and the need to come up with something funny every couple of minutes had limited Smith’s potential as a filmmaker.

With Red State, Smith can no longer say he doesn’t know what he’s doing or that he’s just been lucky with his career: This is the work of a natural-born filmmaker pushing himself toward entirely new territory — and discovering he’s pretty damned good at it. Smith has said he will wrap up his directing career with his next project, a two-part film about hockey. Here’s hoping he changes his mind. Red State implies there is a lot more to Kevin Smith we haven’t seen yet.

Cast: Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Kerry Bishe, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, Cooper Thornton.

Writer-director: Kevin Smith.

Producer: Jonathan Gordon.

A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 88 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, strong adult themes. Plays at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and 10 p.m. Sunday at the Cosford Cinema. Both screenings will be followed by a live Q&A with Smith via Skype.