by Scott Mendelson
There is something almost heartbreaking about seeing a popular filmmaker finally getting the chance to make his or her passion project, only to watch said film turn out to be an utter wreck and completely irrelevant both to cinema and to the subject matter that it pertains to discuss. Such is Kevin Smith's Red State. It is a failure on nearly every level and counter-intuitive to the ideas it seemingly wants to express. Despite a cast of fine actors young and old, the film is a structural mess and resembles nothing less than the kind of bargain-basement direct-to-DVD thrillers that have littered the Netflix queues and Blockbuster shelves over the last ten years. Whether or not this is Kevin Smith's worst film is beside the point (I have only seen about half of his films). What matters is that Red State was his chance to put all of his cards on the table, to make a grand statement about a subject close to his heart. Yet with a cast of his choosing and apparently no limitations beyond budget, Smith has failed artistically and ideologically.
A token amount of plot: three young men (Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, and Nicholas Braun) answer an online ad for a random sexual encounter and make their way to the would-be meet-up house. Once they arrive, they discover that the offer was basically a trap in order to ensnare would-be sexual sinners for denouncement and execution by the local fundamentalist church. As they try to escape certain death, the chaos attracts the attention of federal agents (led by John Goodman) and a Waco-style stand-off seems imminent. But as the body count rises and those trapped inside the compound begin to panic, just who is on the side of angels in this apparent battle between church and state?
On its face, the film wants to be a horror-thriller basically comparing the Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk to the more overtly violent cults such as the Branch Davidians. The 'God Hates Fags' point-men are referenced by name in an opening scene that plays like a book report about intolerant Christian churches. It's an interesting, if long-overdue idea, that is barely developed due to a jumpy and episodic first half that gives way to a wholly separate movie once John Goodman shows up. Unfortunately, perhaps enamored by his actors, Smith doesn't know when to cut, so rambling 'tell, don't show' monologues go on for ten minutes at a time at several intervals during the film. The initial fiery sermon delivered by Reverend Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) goes on for at least ten minutes, for no reason other than that Kevin Smith really wants you to know how vile he and his flock are.
The young victims are basically glorified red shirts, introduced only long enough to be killed (or perhaps escape?) when the plot requires it. While it is nice that the film eventually expands beyond the 'young kids venture into parts unknown and get killed off' sub-genre, what it eventually becomes is no more satisfying. The only character who carries any emotional and dramatic weight is Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), a young woman who realizes that the government may not plan on leaving any survivors and desperately tries to save the young children living in the compound. The rest of the solid cast, which includes Melissa Leo, Steven Root, and Kevin Pollack, is wasted and given little of substance to do or say.
Kevin Smith has always been a better writer than a director. But the borderline amateurishness on display is shocking for someone who has been making films for nearly twenty years. There are countless scenes of characters basically giving lengthy expository monologues that have no credence to the story or could otherwise have been shown. Without going into details, the climax of the film basically feels like Smith and company ran out of money and merely had to inform us of what occurred in the finale. What's equally annoying is that there are nuggets of an interesting idea or two hidden in the mush. The idea of a bloodthirsty religious cult being beset by an equally bloodthirsty federal government is worthwhile. However, the dramatic meat of such a story, the plight of those caught in the middle, is only given a passing acknowledgement through Bishe's strong performance.
In the end, Red State arrives too late to work as a shocking exposé of far-right Christian hate groups, while offering no new wisdom to share about them. In also making the government into the bad guy, Smith does nothing less than neuter whatever issues he wants to discuss regarding the dangers of such religious sects. He also plays into the (theoretical) fantasy that the current government is far-more dangerous than any (theoretical) heavily-armed hate group (be they religious or Tea Party-ish Ala Jonah Hex). Even if you agree that said point of view has merit, Martin Scorsese already made that ironic commentary with Gangs of New York (another deeply flawed passion project) in 2002. But even putting aside how the film fails as a social tract (which of course can be debated), it is a dull, fractured, and often lifeless picture that fails to terrify, thrill, or intrigue. With precious screen-time devoted to Smith's trademark potty humor and rambling monologues, the film feels both far too long and painfully incomplete. It is not scary, funny, or informative. It feels like a new filmmaker's rough draft, not the decade-in-the-making thesis statement from a longtime director.
If Smith is serious about leaving behind the world of Jay and Silent Bob (with the excellent Clerks II being the finale), then Red State is a troubling sign that the man behind View Askew may have no place else to go.
For (old) thoughts on Red State and the future of Video On Demand, go HERE.