Kevin Smith’s career has been very frustrating to observe. Here is a man whose debut was hailed as a vanguard of a new kind of independent cinema, and since then (with the possible exception of Chasing Amy) he has not only failed to evolve but in some ways has moved backward, particularly when it comes to dialogue and character development. Even more annoying is that he has petulantly taken to defending his growing ineptitude. This reached an astounding level of arrogance when he threw a Twitter tantrum over the critical drubbing of Cop Out, a film he even admitted wasn’t very good. Despite a recent string of worthless films and his childish attitude, I remain hopeful that he can impress me in the future. One does not have to be a likable person to achieve great things, after all.
So imagine my pleasant surprise in hearing about Red State, a film that appeared completely removed from his tiresome raunchfest-with-a-heart-of-gold formula. There’s nothing I love more than auteurs redeeming themselves after a period of artistic corrosion, so I made sure to see it as soon as I could.
**Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**
Smith wastes no time in introducing his antagonists – the Five Points Church – as bigoted monsters, opening the film with their protesting at the funeral of a slain gay teen as our initial protagonist Travis is heading to school. But in case anyone in the audience needs its major characters explained through laborious exposition, the film’s got you covered, having Travis’ Social Studies teacher lecture about them for several minutes. The dialogue in this set-up is not only crammed with unnecessary details (“Even the Neo-Nazis are spooked by these guys!”) and dunderheaded foreshadowing (“Let’s hope they don’t exercise their Second Amendment rights anytime soon…”) but is weirdly cold-hearted. One would think that the recent brutal murder of a student would devastate his entire school, but apparently the class requires a nonchalant reminder from Mrs. Vasquez to even remember him.
After that unfortunate business, Travis meets up with his friends, Jarod and Billy Ray, and plan to head over to Cooper’s Dell to meet up with a woman that Jarod met on a sex solicitation site. On the way they accidentally sideswipe the car of a man we later come to know as Sheriff Wynan, a self-loathing closeted homosexual who sends one of his reluctant deputies to find the teen culprits. Arriving at the woman’s trailer, the three boys are drugged with roofies (as Jarod actually states out loud before passing out. Y’know, in case you couldn’t figure it out).
Jarod is then thrust without warning into the heart of the Five Points Church as its leader, Pastor Abin Cooper, delivers a hate-filled sermon that goes on…and on…for nearly ten minutes. Why would Smith grind his film to a halt just as its suspense is starting to ramp up? It’s certainly not to move the story along or provide any character insight, as Pastor Cooper basically just goes through boilerplate hatemongering: America is more sexually permissive, the gays are to blame, look at the horrible images on TV, etcetera, etcetera. His speech is fairly accurate to the kind of image that Christian supremacists want to put forward, but why spend such a huge chunk of time reiterating that without any sort of unique spin on their warped psyche? Such self-indulgence I can only attribute to Smith either being in love with his own mediocre lines or being in love with the actor delivering them. The answer is probably a little of both, and at least the latter case is somewhat justified.
Michael Parks – a prolific character actor – cuts a compelling figure in Cooper. He wisely avoids one-note malevolence and instead generates a kind of sinister folksiness reminiscent of other hateful religious figures. Trailing every sentence with a baritone purr, mugging his face as he jokes with the children, with a real expression of hurt and concern when describing the worst sins of humanity, it’s easy to see how he could attract a congregation. Had his performance not flown off the rails during the climax, I would have declared it completely worthy of the hype. Unfortunately that same kind of eerie believability was not extended to the rest of the cast that make up his church. Melissa Leo in particular is embarrassing, and this is coming from someone who defended her divisive Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter. Anyone who dismisses her as a hambone can now readily point to this film as ‘Exhibit A’ supporting that accusation, and that’s a damn shame.
So after that detour, Smith finally remembers that this is supposed to be a horror movie and kicks things into nasty gear with the male members of the church killing a nameless homosexual victim in breathtakingly cruel fashion. Before attempting the same on poor Jarod, his friends manage to escape and – for the first and only time – the film maintains a credible if fleeting sense of tension. The resulting chaos compels an ashamed Wynan to call in the ATF…and the film’s momentum screeches to a halt again.
Enter John Goodman in a respectable performance as Joseph Keenan, a world-weary ATF agent briefing his boss over the phone about the Five Points Church, and this exchange is as irritating as the classroom. Hammering away once again at unnecessary and/or obvious details, this little dialogue has the added offense of putting the film’s cowardice in full display. Keenan – and by extension, Smith – goes out of his way to distinguish between Five Points and the Westboro Baptist Church, the very group that Red State is purportedly skewering. Kevin Smith could not have picked an easier target for ridicule, and he didn’t have the guts to leave even the implication that he was going after a specific real-world group. Ugh…anyway, the ATF arrives to search their compound, which predictably goes disastrously wrong thanks to the bumbling incompetence of Wynan. But no worries, in this bizarre Coen Brothers-ish third act he’s dispatched shortly afterward.
By the way, that’s the third and final gay character we’ll be seeing in this film. While I’m sure this was unintentional, there’s something odious about the primary victims of modern Christian bigotry being represented here in the form of an already slain teen mentioned in a throwaway line, a bound man murdered without even knowing his name, and a cartoonishly idiotic character humiliated not once, not twice, but three times before he’s gruesomely offed. If Smith’s rage toward people like Abin Cooper came from any place of empathy, it might have occurred to him to have actually given us an identifiable homosexual character at the center of such brutality instead of his stock Young Straight Guys Obsessed With Cocks…but perhaps it’s not entirely surprising; it’s the only personality he’s ever truly understood.
From there, it’s scene after scene of dry verbal exchanges punctuated by gunfire. In a strange way, the madcap comedy of errors that ensues – while not consistently effective – is possibly the most entertaining part of the film. Easily the movie’s flat-out funniest scene is when Keenan demands a text from his superior to secure his field office in the middle of an intense firefight. Seeing the ATF agents debating the morality of massacring “innocent” people, when of course we know that they’re not, is intriguing in a misanthropic sort of way, even if the dialogue itself during those scenes is mind-numbingly dull. The problem is that these prickly developments don’t really go anywhere. Well, not anywhere interesting…
Several deaths later, Red State throws a Hail Mary of a climax that is so out there I was wondering if the film was truly on to something or simply idiotic. Sadly, the denouement confirmed my second suspicion, which sprints from its own provocative climax into – wait for it – another scene of overworked, repetitive dialogue describing how the firefight was resolved. In perhaps the lowest point of an already disappointing movie, Goodman goes on and on explaining exactly what happened instead of the film just, you know, showing it. Keenan’s closing speech aims for profundity, but it’s difficult to take seriously when his condescending remarks are aimed at nothing more than Smith’s straw men.
Many reviews have described this film as an evolution of Kevin Smith as a director, and in some respects they’re right. Not that he set much of a high bar; his work was almost always characterized by ungainly and careless visual choices, and for the first time in his career he not only appears to have finally grasped the basics of lighting and framing a shot, but even peppers virtuoso touches from time to time. Whether or not reaching a minimum level of directorial competence after nine feature-length films deserves to be lauded, I leave up to you, dear readers, as I would argue that it’s a moot point. In the end, all the moody lighting and effective handheld camerawork don’t add up to much if the final product is a talky mishmash of several different short movies, all of them aping the style of other directors from Quentin Tarantino to the Coen Brothers, and all played at varying tones but with the same sneering contemptuousness. Challenging its claim to “audacity,” I would argue that knocking Religious Fanatics and Big Evil Government is the laziest form of cynicism in this day and age, especially when both are portrayed as lurid caricatures and none are explored in an edifying way.
Before closing out my review, I should note that not everyone will see this film the same way I do. My colleague Joey Magidson, for example, was highly impressed by Red State. You can read his very different take on it here.