It’s becoming more and more difficult to remember what Kevin Smith such an appealing and winsome filmmaker in the first place. With Red State, this trend seems to have reached its nadir. As he ages, Smith seems to be undergoing an identity crisis, genre-hopping uncertainly from film to film, before announcing this year at Sundance his intention to retire altogether after his next project, Hit Somebody. This while unleashing a diatribe against the industry’s marketing costs.
Smith’s first horror film, Red State is currently touring independently in selected US theatres, following its release to VOD on 1 September. A guns-blazing, full-frontal assault on Christian fundamentalism, with the Westboro Baptist Church firmly in mind, the film takes stylistic and dialogue cues from Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, except that it is artlessly put together, lazily written, and ultimately tedious. Red State is certainly an ideas movie: the problem with it is that those ideas fail to make sense.
Smith begins in familiar territory. Three school-bound losers, played flatly by Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun, form a pact to go and sleep with an out-of-town, 38-year-old woman whom they have observed over the internet and has “nice tits.” Once upon a time, Smith might have deemed fit to make an entire movie just about this implausible premise: how did this trio become that desperate for sex?
This is not that movie. Instead, it’s about what happens after their plan falls rather savagely foul: the bushwhackin’ lady with the heavy Southern drawl they meet—Sara (Melissa Leo, in what is possibly the most WTF role of her career)—turns out to be from the extremist Five Points Church, and drugs their beers. The next they know, they are in the Church’s fortress-cum-prison, about to be devoured by a ravenous horde of Christian whackos with guns. But the authorities are looking for them: a conscience-stricken local sheriff (Stephen Root) is on the case, as well as an ATF officer, Keenan (John Goodman), called in under murky circumstances.
From this point, the movie hardly leaves the confines of the Five Points Church. Situated nowhere in particular, surrounded by imposing-looking gates and barbed-wire fences, the Church recalls the Mount Carmel Center, and also perhaps Abu Ghraib: the film has a dingy, forbidding look, light reflecting harshly off the cement walls of its setting.
In another reference to Westboro, the Five Points Church is organised around family patriarch and pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Parks does what he’s asked to in the film, which is essentially turn in a performance of evil in a bottle. He cackles maniacally, does a crazy dance while singing to himself, and delivers fire and brimstone sermons. In case we were interested, Smith subjects us to one of these in its entirety: a 10-minute scene in which the camera simply hovers over his face and he drones on interminably. Occasionally, we pan away to the congregation members, who screech “Amen” and nearly salivate with devotion, so twisted are these people.
This scene illustrates the problem with Red State on the whole. It doesn’t explore its theme, but only shows a set of problems, as if observing a fundamentalist religious gathering is in itself somehow revealing. The storylines don’t shed light either: subplots are raised, left hanging, and more often than not, abruptly killed off along with characters associated with them. It’s not spoiling too much to reveal that just about the entire cast of Red State dies before the end of the film. This may be intended as realism, a “fog of war” sense of the unpredictability of battle. But it comes off like cynicism and an unwillingness to follow through with established predicaments.
The film’s core and perspective also continually shift, with no clear protagonist. For the first 20 minutes, it appears to be the three teenagers, but they are hardly mentioned again after that. Subsequently, we become uncomfortably familiar with the pastor, at least until Agent Keenan returns to dominate. Goodman, who may have been cast in this film for his ability to sombrely and portentously read a line, any line, is too old to be believable as a US government special agent. Additionally, he wears a look throughout the film like a stunned animal, as though he has no idea what is going on, and is saddled with the role of grindingly lengthy exposition (long minutes of it delivered during a phone call).
As his crack team converges on the Five Points property and the Church members arm themselves to the teeth, the latter portion of the film descends into a continuous gunfight. This is overlong and poorly edited: there is the constant chatter of machine-gun fire, but static shots result in little sense of where anyone is relative to anyone else. In other instances, Smith’s use of shaky-cam makes some moments inside the Church incomprehensible.
The battle’s growing inertia leads to an unsatisfactory deus-ex-machina ending and Burn After Reading-style explanation. Here again, Smith’s inability to maintain a consistent tone throws the whole picture off. His reversion to frat-boy humor and anal rape jokes, in a conversation between high-level government agents, is singularly ludicrous. Goodman then recites a totally baffling monologue about dogs and bones, and what this reveals about humans when they “just plain believe” something, as if this is somehow a meaningful analogy for all that has gone before.
Red State wouldn’t be quite so dislikable if it had anything to say at all, besides, “Religious fundamentalism is very, very bad.” But its incessant focus on nastiness, combined with the elemental failures of story and lack of anyone with whom to empathise, ensure it becomes a directionless, hate-filled invective full of bitter, ugly nihilism. The result is not only the worst movie of Kevin Smith’s career, but one of the worst of 2011.