Red State, Kevin Smith’s stab at a horror film, is better than Cop Out by virtue of the fact that it’s not a completely incompetent film. In fact, Red State often looks good, and it cuts together well - this is a movie that looks like it was made by amateurs who will one day become strong filmmakers.
Except that Smith’s amateur days are long behind him. But in comparison to some of his other work, Red State is stylish and visually lush - ie, the camera isn’t just sitting there trained on people talking. This looks like something you would identify as a movie.
What’s ironic is that what has in the past been considered Smith’s strongest element, his writing, is the weakest part of Red State. The film alternates between being heavy handed and moronic, and it seems to be informed by a 15 year olds’ understanding of Waco filtered through the paranoid ramblings of a stoner. This is an extraordinarily stupid film, a movie that probably sounds profound while baked but is actually little more than nihilistic posturing. That’s probably the most offensive thing about Red State, that it’s a film that tackles serious and important issues from the level of a junior high school creative writing assignment.
The film opens with stunningly thudding exposition about Abin Cooper’s Five Points Church, a virulently anti-gay group who is not based on Fred Phelps, a point which the movie literally states, probably to save Smith’s ass from a lawsuit. First we have Michael Angarano and his mom driving by the group, then we have Angarano’s teacher delivering a boring lecture about the group. Later in the movie John Goodman’s ATF agent character (who pops into being in the third act) delivers a speech about the group into his Bluetooth headset. Also Michael Parks, playing Abin Cooper, delivers an endless sermon laying out the group’s beliefs. While the camera moves and scenes may be framed interestingly, this is still a Kevin Smith movie, which means everybody gotta talk.
Angarano and his irritating friends answer an online ad for a cougar who wants to be gang banged; for reasons that are never clear (beyond the fact that Kevin Smith couldn’t make a homosexual the lead of this film), this ends up being a trap laid by the virulently anti-gay Church, who intend to kill our young heroes. This is the part of the movie where Red State is a Hostel rip-off, and it’s a modestly tedious one at that. The problem is that Smith has no understanding of pacing or tension, and so we end up with a scene where Angarano is stuck in a cage listening to Cooper talk. And talk. And talk.
The set up makes no sense - again, why is this church now entrapping straight young men? - but it’s one that could be used for horror. This is a concept that could work. Yet it doesn’t here because Red State is essentially flaccid, just kind of sitting there. It’s possible to understand why Smith has this long sermon stuck in the middle of the film - for one thing, Michael Parks is amazing as the off-puttingly paternal hatemonger - but he doesn’t figure out how to make it scary. In fact, he’s trying to create some sense of understanding for the members of the Five Points Church.
That’s kind of the crux of the film’s whole ‘twist’ - it morphs from a Hostel clone into a siege movie, where the massed forces of the ATF may be just as awful as the extremists they’re assaulting. That’s the idea anyway, but the execution is lacking. The film utterly fails to create a reasonable sense of moral equivalency, so much that every time a member of the Church was killed by the ATF - even in cold blood - my audience erupted in cheers and laughter. I’m not reading something into the film here, as the ATF is presented as cartoonishly and unconvincingly evil, ordered by Washington to slaughter the inconvenient women and children of the Five Points Church, but any grey area the film seeks to explore is completely washed out by the extraordinary shittiness of the Church members. Again, this is a fundamental failure of the film’s own goals.
Smith gets away with a lot of nonsense in this movie on the back of his cast. Melissa Leo is asked to play a completely silly caricature, while John Goodman is an ATF agent with a moral center that changes based on the day’s script pages. He’s good, but there’s no consistency to him, a problem that plagues the whole film, whose tone careens wildly all over the place. Are we supposed to feel for, laugh at or hate Stephen Root’s closeted gay sheriff? The movie attempts to get all three out of us, going for gay panic-type jokes, weirdly earnest emotional scenes and then finally super broad slapstick. It’s disorienting and bad.
But Parks is great. Incredible, even. If there’s a saving grace in this dumb film it’s his performance, which perfectly straddles sinister and homespun. While many of the other Church characters feel like the set up to redneck jokes, there’s a disturbing completeness to Parks’ Cooper; he’s the best kind of villain in that he’s completely convinced he’s not evil. It’s tempting to recommend sitting through this excruciatingly tedious film just to watch Parks in action.
Speaking of action, there’s an extended gun battle at the end of the film, but Smith’s version of a shooting a gun fight is to have the actors point their weapons offscreen while someone throws debris into the frame to simulate bullet hits. This stuff feels endless, with people just aiming weapons offscreen and faking recoil. What’s the cinema in this? What’s the fun or the action or the excitement or the thrills? This segment of the movie is when Red State most threatens to veer into Cop Out-style incompetence. It’s an Ed Wood restaging of Waco.
Red State clocks in at somewhere in the hour and a half range, but it feels so much longer than that. The film’s four or five act structure gives the impression of an endless series of events, while the script’s lackluster chatting scenes make everything feel even longer. Large parts of the movie make no sense from an internal logic standpoint, which wouldn’t be so bad if they were in service of cool or interesting or scary set pieces. And in the end the whole thing is simply boring, a tedious slog.
There’s some grudging respect given to Kevin Smith for having ambition with Red State, but it’s that ambition which kills the already shaky film. If Red State had continued being a small Hostel rip-off it would have been bad but tolerable. The expansion of the film’s scope with the arrival of the ATF just kills the movie, shattering any goodwill. Yes, it’s ambition, but it’s unguided, poorly thought out ambition.
Still, it seems like we treat Kevin Smith like a special needs student, so let’s give him a pat on the back for trying something new and outside of his wheelhouse, even if he completely and catastrophically fails at it. Everybody’s a winner when they try.