Written and Directed by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo and John Goodman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I fear God. You better believe I fear God."
By now, the dust has pretty much settled around Red State, but, for a while there, the hysteria around the movie mirrored the fervor at the center of the film. At least, I can only assume that’s what Kevin Smith intended when he auctioned the film off to himself and took it on a road show tour last year, ensuring that a bunch of people would certainly be talking about his film. Actually seeing it was a bit trickier if you lived out in the boonies like me, so I couldn’t help but think that Smith was somehow weirdly alienating his audience in the process since there’s little doubt I would have been there on opening night had it received a wide release that I could have actually attended. This is a movie I’d heard Smith harp about for years, and the notion of him doing a horror flick is naturally intriguing; I like watching my favorite directors grow and try weird things and continued to hold a flicker of hope that Red State would somehow justify its hype.
Unfortunately, said flicker was extinguished about thirty minutes into Red State, snuffed out by messy plot and shrill characters. It starts out basically and clichéd enough, with three guys (Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, and Michael Angarano) hitting up an older woman for sex on the internet. Never mind that she’s located right near Cooper’s Dell, a compound that houses a local group of religious fanatics (an obvious stand-in for the Phelps clan). We know that this is going to end badly, but if there’s one thing Smith gets right, it’s that high school kids will do stupid things in the pursuit of sex, especially in horror movies. And indeed, the cougar hunters become the hunted when the lady (Melissa Leo) drugs them and has them abducted.
They wake up in an admittedly eerie place--the Cooper place is a ramshackle, creaky old church, and there’s something a bit disconcerting about the emptiness of it. Only a handful of believers listen to pastor Abin Cooper’s (Michael Parks) hate-filled sermon that’s actually delivered with a relaxed drawl rather than evangelical zealotry. Maybe we’ve seen “poon-addled teens vs. backwoods psychos” a few hundred times before, but Smith at least sets up some sinister, creepy stuff in the form of a grisly execution and a sense of real menace. All the people in the pews feel a bit phony, but Parks’s performance is spot-on and deftly captures the silver-tongued charisma of a cult-leader. While the teens at the center don’t do much to earn your sympathy (more on that in a bit), there’s probably a good slasher/suvirvial movie buried in this concept.
Smith can’t find it though; in fact, he seems to dislike his main trio about as much as his audience should, as he pretty much discards them and this setup, trading them in for a loud, noxious action film, scored by tedious gunfire. This happens once John Goodman enters the picture as a local ATF agent who gets a tip from the sheriff, which is conveniently enough info to conduct a raid. The good news is that John Goodman is pretty much the only character worth caring for, probably because he’s simply John Goodman, and it’s very difficult to dislike John Goodman. At any rate, you can actually feel the film slip right out of Smith’s hands here, as he not only bungles whatever suspenseful premise he had, but also completely eschews nuance and articulation. One senses that Smith has something to say, but it’s delivered with a vitriolic shotgun spray that demonizes both the government and the religious fanatics here--which would almost be okay if he convinced us to care about the innocent characters caught in the center. This ends up being Gallner and one of the young girls caught up in the cult (Kerry Bishe, dressed in rather risqué garb for a cultist); however, by the time Smith gets back around to these two, he’s not even sure what to do with them.
That’s the most surprising thing here--I’d never guess that this was actually a passion project that Smith had been gestating for years. It’s so sloppily handled and so brazenly lacks a true cinematic purpose that it sometimes resembles a dramatized version of an ATF raid that one might see on A&E. There’s no real character arcs, and its main point that people on both sides of this conflict suck is delivered with the depth of a high school freshman’s essay. This is quite alarming coming from a guy who has delivered some pretty thoughtful insights on the human condition, albeit in the midst of dick and fart jokes. I consider his first three films and Clerks II to be John Hughes level shit in the sense that they all genuinely reflect a very specific, relatable milieu of their characters, and he even delivered it through a unique voice--you knew Kevin Smith’s characters when you heard them.
Here, though, this main three characters are reduced to petulant, horndog caricatures that feel like they were written by Rob Zombie rather than by Smith. What’s worse is that there’s not a genuinely funny moment among them--I get that Smith was going for full-on grit here, but even the attempts at pre-mayhem humor basically amounts to the guys discussing how they’re going to have their way with the woman when they meet her. The only thing tackier and louder than these guys is the eventual gunfire that erupts once Smith just commits to turning Red State into a dull shoot-em-up shakily relayed with frantic action and little drama. A couple of jolting moments do occur, but you can almost hear Smith pointing them out, as if to say, “I bet you didn’t think I’d go there!” He consistently mistakes such narrative shocks for actual propulsion, a fact made painfully obvious when trumpet blasts suddenly erupt from the sky as the film’s deus ex machina, a moment only made funnier about five minutes later when Goodman has to give this rambling speech to explain just what it was.
Once you hear this exposition dump, you’ll probably be left with “that’s it?” Said sentiment will also likely sum up your experience with Red State. After all of the hoopla surrounding it, the film just ends up being a lousy and empty condemnation of the evil that men do, only it’s said in the loudest, most obvious way possible. In this respect, the last line is perfect, since you’ll likely be nodding your head when a prison inmate (ironically voiced by Smith himself) yells “shut the fuck up.” Indeed. I actually waited a while to see this film to let all of the baggage dissipate a bit, going so far as to even buy the film on Blu-ray; on that front, I can at least say that Lions Gate has delivered a fine disc with a strong presentation. It might not carry a reference level transfer, simply because the film’s cinematography is flat and digital; the DTS-HD track, however, really does show off the film’s top-shelf sound design. The feature is adequately rounded out by a wealth of special features that include a making-of documentary, “Red State of the Union” Smodcasts, the now infamous Sundance speech, a conversation with Michael Parks, deleted scenes, trailers, and a poster gallery. I’m sure the central irony of this film has been pointed out before, but I can’t resist to compare Smith’s own cult of personality to the one he so obliquely examines here; with Red State, he has made his worst film and retreated to the safety net of his hardcore fan-base to help spread the gospel. But this isn’t the good word; in fact, it’s barely a word at all and is rather disappointing. Rent it!
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