"Red State" Rages, Rants & Disappoints
Published on October 31, 2011 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

Kevin Smith wants us to know that he can do more than make silly movies.

That’s the inescapable message of the writer and director’s foray into horror, Red State. It’s also the most coherent message in this unfocused and frustrating effort where it seems Smith urgently wants to say something about sex, politics and religion. Unfortunately, he ends up giving us the cinematic equivalent of a cynical rant.

It’s not that Smith hasn’t tackled hot-button topics in his comedies. Dogma, Smith’s film about two fallen angels who have found a path into heaven that also will end the world, tackled religion and stirred up controversy when it was released in 1999. And plenty of his other films have had something to say about sex and relationships, even if it was for a juvenile laugh or two.

Of course, the romantic comedy Chasing Amy garnered Smith raves and won two Independent Spirit Awards in 1998. But there’s a sense with Red State that Smith really wants to prove that he can be more than the guy who gave us Clerks and the comic slacker team of Jay and Silent Bob.

Red State begins with a solid premise for a horror movie. Three high school boys set out to meet the woman behind an online ad seeking sex. They meet her in person and soon discover it’s a trap. She’s a member of a radical religious group that takes the teenagers captive and plans to punish them for their sins – a punishment that will end with their deaths.

There’s a sense that a lot of Smith’s inspiration for this movie was “ripped from the headlines” as he raises topics that include religion and post-9/11 America. The religious group – the Five Points Church – pickets funerals much like the Westboro Baptist Church. But a character in the film makes a point of stating that Five Points is not Westboro. Five Points has the potential for violence.

There’s a great opportunity here to explore religious fanaticism and what pushes people professing obedience to God to lash out violently and even kill. When Five Points Pastor Abin Cooper, portrayed by Michael Parks, gives a long sermon early in the movie, there’s potential for exploring this territory. Parks certainly has the acting chops for this role. Unfortunately, aside from a few nuggets, the sermon turns out to be a tedious exercise that eats up a lot of screen time.

Any remaining hope the movie will seriously explore the inner workings of this group is dashed when one of the boys makes an escape attempt and discovers the group’s massive cache of guns. Shots are fired, the ATF hits the scene and suddenly the viewer is watching a movie about a Waco-style standoff – so much for watching a horror film.

It’s one of several frustrating detours in this movie. It’s as if Smith can’t pass up an opportunity to say something about a controversial topic even if it means a jarring shift in tone and story. It also means we never learn much about the characters – including the teenagers whose abduction set the whole movie into motion. Smith’s comedies benefit from crazy shifts in direction. It gives them a spontaneous quality of flying by the seat of your pants. But this movie isn’t a comedy and it doesn’t work here. It’s also disappointing that when Smith makes these detours, he doesn’t succeed in making more than a cynical statement about his subject.

We learn that the ATF agents surrounding the Five Points compound are led by Special Agent Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman, who gives us the typical grizzled federal agent character. We also learn that the ATF isn’t too happy about how past standoffs, such as Waco, have left the agency looking inept.

There’s already been some deadly bungling at the outset of this incident. This sets up the next abrupt detour in this movie as Keenan is ordered by a superior to kill everyone in the compound to eliminate witnesses to the ATF’s handling of this incident. The agency has already concocted a cover story painting Five Points as domestic terrorists, allowing the agents to use deadly force and look like heroes. This is post-9/11 America, after all. 

Keenan accepts the order, rationalizing that he shouldn’t blow a career over one order. At this point, Smith has presented his characters with such disdain and cynicism that it’s difficult for a viewer to care about anyone or anything in this movie as the siege moves forward amid a hail of bullets. Smith offers one more strange and disappointing twist as he tries to pull this frustrating saga together at the end.

It’s obvious that Smith wanted to say something about sex, politics and religion with Red State. He even grouped the characters under those headings in the end credits. But as I watched the movie it’s almost as if I can hear him ranting about politics or religious fanaticism only to throw up his hands and say, “Ah, they’re all assholes. You know what I mean.”

Smith is a talented filmmaker and should continue to explore various genres, but Red State demonstrates that when it appears you’re railing against everything in your movie, it’s hard for viewers to care about anything in your movie – even when they should.

J.K. Eisen writes about entertainment and the world around him. He lives in the Deep South.

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