Red State is the new movie from writer-director Kevin Smith, he who made Clerks and Chasing Amy and many other low-budget comedies over the past decade and a half. This movie is a major departure for Smith, as it’s a very politically conscious story, made and played like a horror movie. Seeing as how Kevin Smith has given himself roles in his own movies since the beginning, and how he has made a lucrative side career with podcasts and public appearances where he talks at length about himself and his movies, and how he has been on a year-long nationwide tour talking about Red State and himself, it’s impossible to talk about a Kevin Smith movie without talking about Kevin Smith. But I’ll do my damnedest. Red State, the movie, deserves the attention.
The movie starts with three horny teenage boys, so desperate to get laid that they answer a fateful ad online, which promises sex with an older woman (Melissa Leo from The Fighter) but ends up being a trap set by a religious fundamentalist group who believe it’s their God-given duty to punish sinners. The church’s leader is a man named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks from Kill Bill and Death Proof), a real nasty piece of work who coos eloquent symphonies of hate to his flock and commands murders even as he calmly sings hymns from over a piano. Cooper gives sermons while sinners like ‘homosexuals’ and ‘perverts’ are strapped to a cross and killed by his parishioners. The movie takes a left turn when a complex chain of events, involving the escape of two of the teens, Cooper’s attempted blackmail of a closeted gay local sheriff (the always-great Stephen Root), and the shooting of a local deputy (Matt Jones, so awesome as Badger from Breaking Bad) results in a tense stand-off with the FBI. John Goodman plays the federal agent dispatched to the scene, and he and Parks are the two charismatic centerpieces stabilizing a movie which is obviously pulled in several different directions with all the ideas present.
If I had no idea that Kevin Smith made this movie, I would tell you honestly that I think Red State is a fascinating misfire. Knowing that Kevin Smith made it, though, the movie is a revelation. It’s neither as great as its champions would tell you nor as bad as its detractors are no doubt lining up to claim. Quentin Tarantino is quoted on the poster as loving Red State, but I think that has more to do with his love for Michael Parks as an actor — whatever else you want to call it, Red State is a great showcase for an underrated actor. But it’s also true that it’s in the scenes dominated by Abin Cooper that Smith gets in his own way as a writer — even Kevin Smith would have to agree that he’s a person who loves to hear himself talk, and it shows in his writing. Kevin Smith loves to hear his characters speak words he wrote for them, and when it comes to Michael Parks delivering monologues, Smith is downright intoxicated. This is admittedly compelling for the viewer, but it also saps the tension established by the surrounding scenes. There’s a scene where Abin Cooper and his people are gearing up to kill their crucified “sinner” while the three boys watch terrified, and I honestly tensed up, but then Cooper starts talking for what feels like at least five minutes of running time, and I palpably felt the tension ebb. You just can’t have that in a movie. Kevin Smith serves as his own editor on his movies; I’m not sure that’s advisable.
Red State has a couple disturbing and shocking kills in it, but it’s not much of a horror movie. It leaps too readily away from the more traditionally horrific set-up, where the boys are imprisoned by bloodthirsty fanatics, to the more real-world scenario of John Goodman and his men preparing to storm the compound. And once those two worlds collide, the movie cuts back and forth between them too rapidly to ever regain any kind of consistent tone. Part of the hyperactivity of the film can be blamed on its look — for years, critics have been riding Smith for his reluctance to move the camera; unfortunately, on this movie he finally responded by adopting that shaky-cam look so overused by film and television. Really, Smith shouldn’t bear the sole blame for the dull look of his previous films or the choppy look of this one — his long-time cinematographer, Dave Klein, hasn’t shown too much of a learning curve himself. Still, both of them have to be commended for finally shaking things up. Red State looks different than any previous Kevin Smith/Dave Klein joint, and I’m glad to see it. As a one-time fan of Kevin Smith’s movies, the honesty and the frequent wit, I was genuinely excited to see him change things up, even this late in the game.
One thing that makes Red State worth talking about, if not entirely effective, is that it is about something real and terrible. Red State takes direct aim on Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, the hateful group out of Kansas who picket military funerals with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” No matter how you look at it, these are some of the worst people on the planet, although I’ve recently read some articles suggesting that Phelps and his people are opportunists and fame-seekers more than true believers (which at least explains their stupid and inconsistent message). Either they really believe these insanely horrible things, or, if the rumblings are true, they pull these stunts at funerals just to provoke the bereaved into throwing punches, at which point they can begin to profit from the lawsuits. I’m not sure which would be worse. Part of me loves that Kevin Smith went after these horrible people, but part of me is annoyed that he gave them the attention they are so very clearly seeking.
It seems as if the conflicted feeling is something intentional, as the stand-off between FBI and evil congregation quickly becomes a gun-battle lasting half the movie, where the bodies pile up on both sides. Red State has at least two moments which recall the ending of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, moments which make an audience feel much more ambiguous about the fate of Cooper/Phelps’s people than we probably want to. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that, or how I’m supposed to feel. Is it that hate is awful, even when we hate the hateful? Are we to resist yearning to see people like Fred Phelps destroyed, lest we destroy a part of ourselves in the process? I’m honestly not sure. Personally, I’ve always been satisfied with my own reaction to the Fred Phelpses of the world — I turn my back and plug my ears. If they want my attention, they’ll never have it. (It’s why I kind of love the very last scene of the movie — I feel like my voice was represented.)
Kevin Smith, however, still has my attention — for better or for worse. I don’t think Red State is as effective as it could have been, since it veers wildly between tones and has just a bit too much going on for a movie of its brief length. But I’d much rather see a thought-provoking movie that doesn’t quite work than a thoughtless movie that follows all “the rules.” If I didn’t know Kevin Smith made Red State, I’d still be willing to see that filmmaker’s follow-up. Knowing it’s the work of Kevin Smith, I say “better late than never”. Of course, he’s very loudly claimed that Red State is his second-to-last movie, having repeatedly threatened retirement after his next one. I’ll believe that when I see it. Jay-Z retired too, and that guy’s everywhere now. Kevin Smith is everywhere now too, but as long as he’s swinging for the fences by making ambitious, energized movies like Red State, I can tolerate it.