Red State, Kevin Smith, 88 mins (18)
The Debt, John Madden, 113 mins (15)

This week's villains: terrorist preacher or Nazi eugenicist – with either, you'll be gripped

It may be a backhanded compliment, but one of the most impressive aspects of Kevin Smith's Red State is how unlike a Kevin Smith film it is.

Whatever you think of Clerks, Chasing Amy and the rest, Smith would be the first to acknowledge that his work is notorious for its loose-at-the-seams plotting and its prolix monologues about sex and/or Star Wars. If you needed a writer-director to furnish brisk pacing and white-knuckle action, he'd be the last person you'd call. Nonetheless, a year on from Cop Out, a film which showed just how horribly he can screw up those very elements, Smith has made an exhilarating, 1970s-style thrill ride which shows that he can do them well, too.

The story gets under way as three teenage boys drive out to the sticks to meet an older woman (Melissa Leo) who's promised them sex on-line. A couple of drugged beers later, the boys wake up in a fortified religious compound where a minister (Michael Parks) is delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon. He and his congregation are caricatures of Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church, the hate-mongers best known in the UK from Louis Theroux's documentaries, but there isn't much exaggeration.

The scary thing about Parks's preacher is that, in contrast with the standard horror-movie villain, he isn't out to prove how scary he is. He comes across as an unremarkable, plainly dressed man who happens to believe that sinners deserve to die, and who has the scripture and the firepower to back up that belief.

A thriller with him at its heart would be gripping enough, but just when you assume that's what you're getting, Red State shifts its focus. Its new protagonist, John Goodman, is a government agent who's informed by his superiors that Parks has been reclassified as a terrorist. Goodman and his men are authorised to break into the compound, guns blazing, and suddenly the film isn't just evoking the Westboro Baptist Church, but the Waco siege. It confronts us with two different forms of American extremism, each one armed to the teeth with automatic weaponry, and leaves us to work out which is worse. It's bracingly unpredictable. You never know who's about to be shot in the head or who's going to do the shooting.

The disappointment is that, once it's set out its ideas, Red State comes to an abrupt halt. Its bathetic conclusion arrives well before the story has fulfilled its potential. All the same, it's not often that you can charge Smith with doing too little with his concepts, rather than too much. Red State isn't just his best film, but the first of his films that should have been longer.

The Debt is another thriller that's tougher and more complex than you'd

expect of its creators. A remake of an Israeli hit, it's co-written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who collaborated on Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, so it's a surprise to see that it doesn't have any super-powered action or knockabout humour, but weighty issues and a saturnine mood instead.

In the film's bookending sequences, set in 1997, Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent who's lionised for her part in capturing a Nazi eugenicist (Jesper Christensen) 30 years earlier. But Mirren isn't comfortable with the acclaim, and a flashback to the mission shows us why. In this central section, her younger self (Jessica Chastain) is billeted in a flat in East Berlin with two fellow agents, Marton Csokas and Avatar's Sam Worthington. She has the worst job of the three: Christensen now works as a gynaecologist, and the only way to get close to him is for her to become his patient. This situation leads to an unbearably tense scene that fully justifies Chastain's rising-star status, but it pays off for the agents when they snare their quarry. Unfortunately, transferring him to Israel isn't so simple. They're forced to keep Christensen imprisoned with them in their flat, where he can play mind games reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs – the difference being that Clarice Starling didn't have to share a bathroom with Hannibal Lecter.

With a novel's worth of story to cover, it's understandable that The Debt never quite finds its subject: is it a film about catching a war criminal, about being stuck in a room with him, about a love triangle between secret agents, or the pressures that the past can put on the present? But if it's not perfect, it's still a rich, well- directed espionage thriller, proof that Gary Oldman and co aren't playing the only spy game in town.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Woody Allen's biggest-ever hit, Midnight in Paris

Also Showing: 02/10/2011

The Green Wave (80 mins, 15)

Urgent documentary about the demonstrations in Iran in 2009. Animation is used to dramatise the horrific reprisals.

What's Your Number? (107 mins, 15)

Anna Faris decides to track down her 20 exes, and enlists her hunky neighbour, Chris Evans, to help. Despite all the swearing, it's as predictable and false as romantic comedies get.

The Woman (100 mins, 18)

An all-American dad finds a feral young woman in the woods, and chains her up in his cellar. For a while, it's a tart black comedy, but the gore and the violence against women make it difficult to stomach.

Red, White & Blue (100 mins, 18)

A tantalising indie drama about Texan drifters turns into a phenomenally unpleasant revenge thriller.

Guilty of Romance (112 mins, 18)

And if the two films above don't sate your appetite for sex and extreme violence, you could try this pretentious Japanese drama about a servile housewife who becomes a prostitute.

Broken Lines (97 mins)

It's not surprising that this miserable north London drama has been gathering dust for three years. Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams give stronger supporting performances than the film deserves.

Cane Toads: The Conquest 3D (85 mins, PG)

Amusing documentary about the toxic toads which are hopping across Australia in their millions.

Film Choice

Alain Delon and Romy Schneider keep cool in La Piscine, Jacques Deray's balmy 1969 psycho-drama, now re-released. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling takes the genre of 1980s action thriller for a spin in Drive, set in LA, the latest from Danish hipster Nicolas Winding Refn.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all