If you were to look up ‘unfulfilled potential’ in the Dictionary then, well, you’d have to look in two separate places. ‘Unfulfilled Potential’ is a collection of two seperate words that are not alphabetically close together. That is how a dictionary works, you see, with individual words, but then you knew that, right? If that was how a dictionary worked though, then the phrase ‘unfulfilled potential’ would doubtless have two images next two it. First would be a picture of the Demon Pigeon writing staff, the other would be a picture of Kevin Smith. Actually, that’s probably not true either. We don’t really have that much potential, as I believe I have ably demonstrated with this opening paragraph.
For many a year I considered myself to be quite the Kevin Smith fanboy, something that seems slightly embarrassing now to my slightly less puerile self. In my defence, when people think of Kevin Smith now they quite understandably think of the loudmouth idiot who makes subpar mainstream American comedies mainly as a way to keep up his profile enough to retain the level of celebrity that has somehow come to him. It wasn’t always the way; back when I was first entering the world of work as a part time employee of Blockbuster Videos, the dusty VHS of Clerks blew my mind. Nowadays it looks like a well written but poorly executed ultra low budget film, its impact diminished by every filmmaker who used it as a stepping stone.
To me it was as revolutionary as any film I had ever seen, and throughout my twenties Smith remained something of a hero to me. Yes his films became less relevant, less funny, less confrontational, but they did at least remain enjoyable watches. The caustic language may have remained but the rebellious intent seemed to diminish, Chasing Amy somehow managing to fudge its message of tolerance in a haze of lesbian jokes, Dogma losing its way due mainly to some very generic visual work and a messy plot. Then came Jay and Silent Bob strike back, which is all laughs and zero substance, as popcorn as all the eighties comedies Clerks felt like a rebellion against. But it was still funny at least, and as I watched it in hazy smoke filled rooms it still fit. Ever since though, Smith’s films have felt a bit like watching a drunk playing darts on ketamine;
Jersey Girl – double twenty!
Clerks 2 – 180! Good show fella, I knew you had it in you.
Zach and Miri – Oh, you appear to have missed the dartboard there old chap, maybe leave off the drinks, eh? Oh, nope, you’re going for the ketamine again are you?
Cop Out – Argh, my eye, my eye! What the fuck did you do that for?
For a while after the critical drubbing Cop Out received, Smith himself seemed to be distancing himself from films for a bit. He publically argued with every critic ever, he slagged off the distribution companies, even found the time to argue with an airline. He threw himself into comics, podcasts, Q&As and autobiographies; a man on constant transmit mode falling fully into all the things that had distracted him enough to ensure he hadn’t made a great film in years. I, like many of his fans, turned my back, my memories somewhat sullied. So where does that leave us for this, his return to the big screen?
Thankfully, the process of cleansing myself of all Smith’s transgressions clears the way for what is his best film to date. Dark, twisted, funny, violent, visual; this is an outburst of a film, a howl of rage projected on screen. The story starts with three typical Smith teenage voices, joking and awkward and girl obsessed, but soon they have fallen into a honey trap set up by a far-right religious cult. From our first introduction to Michael Parks as the grinning maniacal cult leader, in a monologue as good as has graced the cinema screen in a decade, you immediately wonder why Smith hasn’t been making films this intense the whole time rather than wasting time dressing up as Batman and running around with his friends. If Smith’s recent scripts have felt a little lazy then this is him at his invective best, the speech perfectly judged and excellently delivered. After this stomach turning speechifying and a oppressively dark payoff the film lurches up a gear, and when John Goodman and the ATF turn up the film powers into life. Either Smith has hired an excellent cinematographer or he’s finally learnt how to point a camera properly because the direction here is unlike anything he’s previously done, menacing and grubby and close.
For all its breakneck action, however, this is not a film about the power struggle between two opposing sides; it’s about the victims caught in the middle, through family, through foolishness or just dumb luck. This is America’s split personality in full flow, with neither side prepared to back down an inch no matter the cost to the little people caught in the middle. Everyone is locked into their roles and grimly approaching their fate with a crushing inevitability.
That Smith never feels the need to steer into the conventional resolution is to his eternal credit, and come the final credits this reviewer was left feeling a little punch drunk and off kilter, which was not a sensation I ever expected this filmmaker to engender in me again. The only thing about this film to disappoint (aside from a slightly jarring gear change to the final act and some slightly tedious gunfights) is the sense that Smith has been wasting his time all these years making comedies that balance out their saccharine sweetness with pointlessly course humour. Or maybe he needed to reach a certain point to find this kind of film from deep within him. Whatever the case may be, I sincerely hope this is the start of a new chapter in his career, and I can feel slightly less sullied by my appreciation of the man.