Red State: Kevin Smith’s Overambitious Failure
As someone who loved Kevin Smith in high school, most of his films in the last decade have ranged from harmless to mediocre. With Red State, available now on VOD, Smith attempts to tackle some serious satire and whiffs horribly. He hasn’t tried a film this ambitious since Dogma, but he hasn’t made a finl product this bad either; Red State is an unpleasant, terribly executed snoozefest rife with cliched satire, awful pacing, and an utter lack of suspense. Most surprising of all, the most reliable element in most Kevin Smith films– the script– is easily the worst part of Red State, stuffed with one-note characters, obvious proclamations, and the worst transitions between drama and comedy in recent memory.
Travis (Michael Angarano) and his two buddies Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicolas Braun) are three sex-obsessed teens living down South trying to get laid. You can tell it’s down South because one of the characters is named Billy-Ray and has a grotesque mullet. The beginning of this film is excruciating, watching three stereotypical redneck kids talk constantly about sex as if they were impersonating a Kevin Smith film. Smith obviously thinks jokes about penises and butts are still as funny as they were in the 1990s, and the first ten minutes alternates between these bad American Pie reject jokes and the first few heavy-handed “statement” moments of the film in condemnation of Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Cooper is a notorious fundamentalist preacher, the type of religious nut who protests at the funerals of openly gay people with signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS” and the like.
It turns out, he’s more than just that type of religious nut. The three boys go on Craigslist to try to get laid– talking to normal girls about non-sex-related subject matter seems to be outside of these characters’ wheelhouse– and find a woman willing to take all three on. They drive to meet Sara (Melissa Leo), and when they arrive at her trailer, they are nearly immediately drugged. They then wake up bound and gagged at Cooper’s church, where he gives a long speech explaining who he is and why he does what he does, as members of his congregation yell out in approval. The movie turns to horror for about five to ten minutes, and while it isn’t particularly well-executed, it is easily the most interesting part of the film, remaining somewhat tonally consistent and focusing primarily on Michael Parks, who despite playing a one-note kook gives his character the suggestion of dimension.
All Hell breaks loose when cops hear shots at the church, which gives ATF official Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) the excuse he needs to surround the church. Keenan has been onto Cooper’s church for a while now, since they’ve been buying and gathering guns at an absurd rate for some time, which mixed with their radical fundamental ideas technically makes them a homeland terrorist cell. A gigantic firefight between ATF and the congregation breaks out, and the movie waltzes from mediocre to absurd. Smith begins to try to juggle both his startlingly original “religious nuts are crazy” satire with the equally original “the government is ineffective” satire. While doing this, he tries to create moments of humor sprinkled in between the violence and mayhem, to the point what he wants to get a laugh and what he wants you to take seriously.
I couldn’t take a single character seriously. Outside of being one-dimensional rednecks or government buffoons across the board, Smith seems to be mocking everything about them. Many of the “good guys” die in comically brief outbursts of violence and their deaths are really never dealt with. Many of the “bad guys” act like total clowns during the firefight– Melissa Leo, an Oscar-winning actress, faces the impossible task of having to stroll through a room with bullets flying past her face calmly to receive some sweet tea for her father, then immediately have to segue into a very melodramatic scene with a young member of their family. How can any actor follow such a silly moment with a tear-filled family conflict realistically? Kevin Pollak appears for a moment as an ATF officer who tells a few jokes and is established as John Goodman’s friend, and then his brains are blown out in front of Goodman as if it’s the punchline to one of his jokes. Tonally, this script is firing in every direction and constantly missing. Smith successfully gives the violence no impact, the satire no bite, and the jokes no opportunity to succeed.
After the most inert firefight in recent memory, consisting primarily of twenty minutes of close-ups of actors looking off into the distance and firing AK-47s at something off-screen, we arrive at the ending. It’s stolen nearly directly from Burn After Reading, where government agents explain how the conflict ended in a comedic fashion. It turns out that all of the religious nuts were worthy of mockery, and the ATF officers who died were all expendable know-nothing chumps, and the government officials in charge were duplicitous and laugh at the casual loss of life. The event that causes the end of the firefight, which has serious and interesting implications when it occurs, is revealed to be a joke, designed to make the audience laugh at the idiocy of the fundamentalists. They also give John Goodman’s character a monologue about people who believe in religion at the end that is so corny that he deserves some sort of award for saying it with a straight face. It’s an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull “knowledge was their treasure” moment in a film that really didn’t need more awkward moments.
Smith even gives the movie a punchline– someone yells at Cooper to “shut the f-ck up” right before the blackout. After the beginning of the film, the end of the film, the comedic deaths within the film, the awkward jumps in tone, and the establishment of these characters as people we should be laughing at, it’s impossible to reach any conclusion other than the whole film is a joke. Smith sat down at a typewriter with an interesting premise about a fundamentalist church killing sinners, but he failed to stay focused and deliver the premise’s potential. He even somehow got a good cast to turn in really bad performances (Melissa Leo and Stephen Root in particular are Razzie-worthy in this film). I realize that bashing Kevin Smith on the Internet is a recipe for disaster, but unless you defend Smith blindly or you hate fundamentalist religious nuts to the point where you don’t care how bad the movie bashing them is, I don’t see how you can find anything redeeming in this film at all. Red State is a group of one-dimensional characters spouting confused cliched satirical points in a movie that is awkwardly edited, stagnantly shot, tonally disjointed, and most stunning of all, poorly written. Let’s join hands in prayer that the Kevin Smith of the 1990s will return and leave the past decade behind him. Amen.