Sep 7, 2011

A Sad State of Affairs

by Thomas Willet
9:00am PST, September 7, 2011

There is plenty to praise about Kevin Smith’s Red State. However, the majority of it cannot be seen in the movie. He has succeeded in creating a buzz around the film’s self-release style, and has garnered the praise of his fan base while upsetting the Westboro Baptist Church, whom the movie was largely inspired by. He has created an immediacy and need to see it by hyping it as a straight-up horror movie, as opposed to his long-winded comedies of yesteryear. He managed to make back the budget with a screening tour before the movie ever hit theatrical release. For that, there is plenty to praise. Smith has become a tycoon, creating buzz over even the smallest details of his life. He has managed to bring Red State into the public consciousness without a studio’s financial aid.

In ten years, that buzz may be the only thing anyone remembers from Red State. Once regarded for commentaries on religion (Dogma) and sexuality (Chasing Amy), Smith has been spending the past five years in a rut as a filmmaker. His recent work lacks the vivacious blend of crass pop culture references with heart that made him so promising to begin with. Instead, he’s turned his energy towards podcasts and public speaking. To say it was wise is questionable, and if Red State is any indication, this new career turn may have made him more juvenile and less developed as an artist.

With his latest, Smith takes on the horror genre by sending three horny teenagers, Jared (Kyle Gallner), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Travis (Michael Angarano) into the depths of Cooper’s Dell to have sex with a woman that they met over the internet (Melissa Leo). Shortly afterwards, they are ambushed by members of the Five Points Church who, assuming they are homosexuals, plan to attack them. Will they escape the wrath of the church leader, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his followers?

The movie continues to get stranger and more violent, resulting in numerous shoot-outs, deaths, and moral dilemmas, but the film never develops into the horror Smith has promised, and instead resembles an action movie with lots of close-ups of people running and falling out of windows. The third act comes and goes without any real resolution. Everyone is seen as corrupt, mostly due to a lack of focus on any one character’s story, and no one is developed into anything more than an archetype, be it a church lunatic, a horny teenager, or a police officer with terrible dialog guaranteed to strip away any authenticity.

While it appears that Smith has gotten more ambitious with camera angles, his work here is very amaturish and distracting. The action scenes lack focus, in part because of an unnecessary photographic style that lends a surreal vibe more in place in 28 Days Later. The editing creates a stop-and-go effect with transitions that feel stilted. Overall, Smith continues to prove that he’s a hack at shooting action sequences, though his quest to make a good one appears to have replaced his desire to make a cohesive story.

He does, however, have a few advantages up his sleeve. As a professed Catholic, his creation of Abin Cooper as a virtuoso of the scripture turns out the best scene of the movie. With a 20 minute introduction to Cooper, as he preaches homophobia to a church full of smiling families, Smith teases us with what could have been a stellar character. And while many may argue that Smith’s dialog runs too long, this monologue manages to show Parks’s strength in engage through movement and tone. His menace creates the atmosphere needed for the rest of the movie, only to be destroyed by the anti-climactic shoot-out. the film also features a superb performance by John Goodman as ATF Agent Keenan, whose work is sloppy, but his dedication is honest.

It’s disappointing to think that Smith dedicated so much time to an ambitious horror movie without really creating a focus or message. Strip away the credits, and this can easily be mistaken for the work of a newcomer filming a shoddy script without a real understanding of character development. Despite created two of his more refined, interesting characters (Abin Cooper and Agent Keenan), he places them into an alternate universe, where Clerks doesn’t seem to be on his resume and his 17 year career is more about persistence than becoming a recognizable voice. At most, we get traces of his glory days, but with crass jokes written so poorly, it’s hard to think that Smith even cared about half of these characters to begin with.

Red State is not a terrible movie. It’s just a forgettable misfire that came at an unfortunate time in Smith’s career. With the press raging against his politics, it iss possible that this movie will get more hate than it deserves. However, with such a loyal fanbase, it may also be poorly judged as a classic through biased eyes. Either way, Red State may be remembered more for what Smith did off camera than on. Even as the movie is rolling its final credits, there is an advertisement for his podcast empire: Smodcast. If that’s not proof of where his heart is, then it’s time for Smith to get a script editor and accept criticism.

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