SPOILERS AND RELIGIOUS DISCUSSION AHOY!
I actually saw a glimmer of hope coming from Kevin Smith’s career after seeing the trailer for Red State. Smith’s career was in a downward trend with Jersey Girl (although depending on if you liked Smith in the first place much sooner), was briefly propped up with Clerks II, and then plummeted straight to rock bottom with the release of Cop Out. The reason I was hopeful for Red State was that it was a change of pace. I can understand a director getting into a funk doing the same thing over and over and trying to appease the same fan base with the same dick and fart jokes. It is those times when directors get away from something frustrating that they can make something even greater. Kar Wai Wong made Chungking Express as a way to relieve tension from the hellish shooting of the epic Ashes of Time and Sofia Coppolla made Lost in Translation when she had difficulty writing Marie Antoinette. Couple this with the idea that the horror genre isn’t that far out of Smith’s wheelhouse if you think about it. He has always been someone who preferred smaller productions with minimal funding and lesser known actors. Also the majority of horror films don’t require…how shall I put it, artistic direction. I really am not harping on Smith’s direction, but merely stating he doesn’t have to do anything fancy in terms of making something scary.
There was a lot of discussion both about the possible religious message and of the political message. The title “Red State” can be correlated with that of the religious right but that does not mean it is always the case. I personally didn’t think Smith *needed * to say anything about those subjects to be brutally honest. Don’t get me wrong, as an atheist I personally don’t mind when someone takes the piss out of religion, but I would rather have someone better suited to the topic. I have yet to see Smith say anything I have found really profound. I remember reading a Daredevil comic he wrote in which the reason he believes people should believe in God is Pascal’s Wager which is so profoundly stupid it is not worth the trouble. But for a more common example for people familiar with Smith’s movies is Chasing Amy. It is a movie about a guy falling for someone who is unattainable through sexual orientation. It was supposed to discuss what it is to be a lesbian and highlight that being gay is not a choice. How did it end up? Well I learned all a lesbian needs is a good deep dickin’ from Ben fucking Affleck and they are turned hetero again. Point is I never heard anything from Smith that would indicate he could make any kind of subtle commentary on either religion or politics or both. Nor does he need to. Who’s to say he couldn’t just make a horror film where a crazy preacher goes out and kills people he thinks are sinners? I would rather he make a great horror film instead of trying too many things at the same time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a half a page of preamble, let me start with a summary of the film’s plot.
Red State is initially about three teenagers who set up sex date online with someone they never met before. When they get there, they find out it is a trap set up by local fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps I mean Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Abin and his church kill people who answer the ad because they are sinners. The movie then goes in another direction when the ATF attempts to serve a warrant on Abin’s compound in Waco I mean wherever they decided to set this film instead. The agents, led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) decide to take no prisoners when the plan gets messed up.
So I guess I will tackle the elephant in the room and discuss the “messages” of the film. As I indicated in my description they are not too subtle. Smith is making commentary on Fred Phelps and taking shots at the government over Waco and in the process completely screws the pooch on both. The problem with Phelps is even highlighted by a line of dialog in the film (always a bad sign when characters point out plot holes) that he is a “seer and not a doer”. Phelps believes God is the one responsible for punishing people for their sins and therefore doesn’t need to get his hands dirty. He is perfectly happy preaching his message of hate while suing people who try to get in his way. Now Fred Phelps is an evil man who spreads his vile message wherever he can (I cannot denounce him enough), but as far as I know he has never personally advocated any followers take violent action. Now Smith is taking dramatic license, but it is not even internally consistent in that regard either. All during the movie Abin is preaching about how homosexuality is a sin, how it is causing the decline in America, and how it needs to be wiped out. Why is it then that our main characters aren’t homosexual? Instead they are a group of horny hetero teenagers and the movie has to throw out a hurried explanation that they are fornicators and they need to die too. What is the point of making a Phelps character and not doing anything about what one of his main points is?
Things get even more laughable when Smith turns to commentary about Waco. Smith somehow has to make the ATF agents seem more evil than Abin’s followers. Now when you see Abin’s followers kill people methodically during the first half of the movie and say the things they say, you realize how far the director has to stretch to make the government people seem even worse. The movie gets downright hilarious at times when we see how poorly written the ATF agents are and the things they are forced to do through sheer contrivance of the script. I kid you not, during the scenes where I was supposed to be horrified at the slaughter by the ATF agents I was laughing out loud. It’s not because I’m a sick person (although that may also be the case) but it was because the writing was so horrendously bad I couldn’t believe Smith thought this was a good script. Uwe Boll wrote better stuff in Darfour than Smith did here. That’s right, I am saying Uwe Boll did something better than Kevin Smith. THAT’S why I was laughing my balls off during this movie. I was literally imagining Uwe Boll chastising Kevin Smith in front of his word processor for being too stupid.
The other problem in this movie is that there is no one to really root for in this movie. Abin and his followers are all evil murderers and the ATF are made to be even worse. So who are we supposed to care for? You may say the three kids who are captured but you would also be wrong. The kids are modeled in the same fashion as most victims in horror movies today to where they are also annoying twats that you wish the killers would eliminate as quickly as possible. Also because the narrative is so jumbled they are almost forgotten about after the 30 minute mark.
Red State also feels like two different movies. The first half of the movie is (and I know people are going to jump on me for using this term but what the hell) basically a torture porn movie wherein unlikable characters are picked off one by one by their torturers. Then the movie snaps in tone so hard you get whiplash as we go into a Waco shootout. These two halves really aren’t that compatible and neither side are any good because they don’t have enough time to develop. The movie is only 80 minutes long. That’s right, the movie barely clocks in at 80 minutes (ten whole minutes are from the credits). The whole thing is rushed when it didn’t need to be. The characters in the movie are given no depth so there is no connection, the story is rushed through leaving many plot holes, and the time constraint makes it seem like two bad movies instead of one coherent thread. The resolution of the movie actually started out interesting too. I would have given Smith some credit for having balls to try to pull it off but he then decides to play it safe which was actually the worse option. The last ten minutes has Goodman on screen trying to explain the whole debacle like a much shittier version of the psychologist at the end of Psycho. It comes off more as an apology than an explanation. It is almost sad to see Smith try to shoehorn all that and a message in at the same time. Once again I imagine Smith behind his word processor with his head buried in his hands trying to figure out how to write himself out of it all and having nothing and THAT was the actual ending.
The tone of the movie is all over the map too. I know I am beating this dead horse into a red goo at this point so I won’t harp on it too much. I’ll just say like the plot, the tone is also all over from being a horror film to being thriller/action movie to even moments of comedy. Yeah, Smith tries to punch up the dialog with some “zingers” but they are really out of place in a movie like this and breaks the mood. One final shot at Kevin Smith I swear. The man cannot shoot an action scene. Once again I was thinking to myself how much better Uwe Boll was at an action scene than Smith was. I’m serious, Rampage had much better action staged than Red State. Hell, even Bloodrayne 3 had better action in it.
Okay, okay, I need to highlight the movie’s good points. If there is any reason to see this movie it is because of Michael Parks. The man is a joy to see in this role as he is creepy but hamming it up in just the right ways. This was really all the movie needed to be was having him deliver creepy monologues. Sadly he doesn’t get as much screen time as he needs as the rest of the plot pushes him aside. And even though I complained about Smith’s action scenes, I will say he has gotten better in other respects as a director. Faint praise I know, seeing as how he started with a static camera in Clerks but praise is praise.
If you haven’t guessed by now that means you have reading comprehension problems, but it also means Red State is a bad film. The movie suffers by having two rushed plot narratives in an 80 minute film which makes the tone and stories suck altogether. In his effort to make Smith’s targets morally reprehensible he neglected to give us any characters to be invested in or any reason to care. The political and religious messages are ham fisted to say the least and hilariously embarrassing to say the most. Michael Parks tries his best to make the movie entertaining, but it is too little for the purposes of saving this movie. Still…it’s funnier than Cop Out.