Tuesday, December 27, 2011

RED STATE: Swing and a Miss


Note: Red State was released for a short theatrical run earlier this year, and was also screened as part of a travelling roadshow shepharded by writer/director Kevin Smith. It's been available for rental, download, and via Netflix Instant Streaming for the last few months. I was recently able to catch the film via Netflix.

- I'm a longtime fan of Kevin Smith, and I'll defend his earlier works (and even a couple of his later works - Clerks 2, anyone?) any time I hear them come under critical attack. Clerks was a life-changing film for me - when I saw it in college, it opened my eyes to what was possible in independent film. Smith's films made many like me realize the power of low-budget, dialogue driven movies - movies that were as effective as anything that Hollywood was churning out, because they came from a very real, very authentic place. Not only that, but Smith's films like Clerks and Mallrats spoke to me - the characters in these movies were some of the first I remember seeing who were part of the new breed of geek - pop-culture obsessed, fluent in the worlds of comics and videogames, but not nerds of the glasses and hiked-up-pants variery. For a while there, Kevin Smith felt like one of us - the fanboy who had made it in movies, who was now making cool films for his people.

To this day, I enjoy hearing Smith speak, and the guy is often hilarious. But one thing that's evident from hearing Smith talk is that he's lost some of his passion for the movie biz. He's talked for a long time now about calling it quits following his next (and purportedly last) film. And much of his time is spent on podcasting and other non-movie-making pursuits. I have to wonder if some of that indifference seeped through to RED STATE. I've heard Smith talk about the movie at length, and he seems very passionate about some of the underlying ideas behind the movie - he can talk all day about the Westboro Baptist Church and how they inspired the film and how he can't stand (and rightfully so) their particular brand of religiously-justified intolerance. He also seems particularly passionate about the way in which the film was distributed. And again, I think he has a right to take some pride in this. Smith bucked the typical system for putting out a film. He distributed it independently, circumvented traditional theatrical release windows, and he took it around the country via his roadshow, where he accompanied the sceenings with speaking engagements. And I have no doubt that Smith speaking - hilarious as he usually is - was a highlight of those screenings. I think both of these things - Smith taking on intolerance, and innovating in terms of distribution, are admirable in their own ways.

Of course, all of this admiration has to do with the stuff surrounding Red State. At the end of the day though, the question remains: how is Red State as a film? Short answer: well, it's sort of a mess. It's one of Smith's more ambitious and out-there efforts, sure, but it's not one of his better films. I say this as someone who wanted to like this one, as someone who's fascinated by the subject matter, and as someone who's liked a lot of Smith's more recent stuff - I loved Clerks 2, I thought Zack & Miri was hilarious. But Red State, to me, mostly fell flat.

The first thing you might notice about Red State, if you're a Smith fan, is that it looks nothing like most of Smith's other films. The movie is shot in distinctly horror-movie tones, with the green-brown textures of a modern-day grindhouse flick. There's a videogame-like HD slickness to the film that's a far cry from the primitive-by-comparison look of movies like Clerks or Chasing Amy. Even the movie poster gives the impression that this is a game adaptation or something. Smith is clearly trying something new and different here, and that's commendable. At the same time, I felt like I was watching Smith learning-on-the-fly how to shoot a horror movie. There are all sorts of random shots, camera angles, and editing tricks used that just don't really add up to much, in terms of effectiveness. There are awkward camera-placements that obstruct the action, choppy editing that feels pretty pointless given what Smith is trying to accomplish, and action that lacks the proper oomph.

Still, Smith has a great cast to work with, and the interesting germ of a story to base his premise around. Basically, we follow three sadsack teen boys as they giddily journey to meet up with a woman they've been in contact with via an online sex site. What the boys don't realize is that they're actually being lured into a trap - a trap set up by the followers of a bugnuts insane fundamentalist church group. The group, led by their charismatic leader Abin Cooper, routinely snatches up people they consider to be deviants so as to inflict punishment, torture, and death on the gorunds of their hidden-away compound. As it happens, the same night that the boys are kidnapped by the church, local law enforcement is tipped off to shady activity at the compound. Given that the church is comprised of family members by blood or marriage, outsiders have never been ableto infiltrate its ranks to get proof of their misdeeds. But police and government officials have had enough of the church - they decide to stage a full-on raid of the compound, even though odds are it's going to be a bloodbath.

It's a cool setup, no doubt. And there are some great actors here who really do good work. Michael Parks, for example, is really good as church leader Abin Cooper. He talks with a soothing yet half-crazed Southern drawl, and alternates between kindly old grandfather and evil sonofabitch. At one point, Smith gives Abin a long, long monologue, and it could have been interminable, except for the fact that Parks' delivery makes it entertaining. John Goodman is the other real standout as the ATF agent assigned to lead the raid on the church compound. Goodman is rarely not awesome, and he brings a great intensity, mixed with world-weary resignation, to the role. Finally, Melissa Leo is scary and crazy as Abin's daughter, the woman who lures the teens to the compound. A couple of other really good actors are in the movie - Stephen Root, Anna Gun (and Matt Jones, Badger on Breaking Bad - a BB reunion!), but they're both underutilized. The actors who play the three teens are decent, but the characters are pretty half-baked, not quite up there in the pantheon of great Kevin Smith slackers.

But let's face it, Kevin Smith movies have always been scrappy affairs, and we watch them for the characters, the dialogue, and the humor - not for mind-blowing cinematography. Here though, Smith stumbles when it comes to story and characters, and that's surprising. The script jumps all over the place. We spend a ton of time with Abin at his church, but most of that time is just Abin monologuing about his hatred of deviants and homosexuals. It's scary stuff, but it's also standard-issue, and after a while, it feels like we're just listening to the same hate-filled rants over and over again. The problem is that while the film revolves around Abin, everything else on the periphery feels thrown together. The three teen boys are introduced as potential protagonists, but none of them have much personality, and they quickly fade into the movie's background. Stephen Root is introduced as a potentially fascinating character - a local sherrif with a secret - but he is ultimately a non-factor in the movie. Late in the film, Abin's teenage niece suddenly becomes a key player in the drama, but it all happens too suddenly, and it feels forced. Characters pop in and out of the movie with reckless abandon, and there's never any one throughline. And I also felt like a lot of the conflict in the film felt manufactured. Smith sets up a situation where, as it turns out, the ATF agents raiding the compound are ruthless killers who, by movie's end, are almost as bad as the church members they're taking down. But why? It feels pointless to make John Goodman's crew so unsympathetic and malicious in the way that they take down the church. I'm not sure what Smith was going for here at all -whatever point he's trying to make is lost in the movie's haphazard plotting and nonsensical storytelling.

Now, there is a moment towards the end of the film - and I won't spoil it - where I really thought that Smith was going to throw us a curveball and take the movie into really weird, Dogma-esque territory. But instead, it's all a red herring, and we end in a baffling debriefing where Goodman's character is being grilled by his superiors. Smith seems to be going for some sort of No Country For Old Men thing here, abruptly cutting away from the action to end on a sombering bit of narration. But man, it does not work. In general, there are all sorts of fragments of interesting ideas and notions and social commentary scattered about this movie, but none of them are ever fully realized. It feels like Smith got lost after making his main point, which is simply that fundamentalists are crazy and scary. True, but no big revelation there. Meanwhile, any deeper insight or satire or commentary is totally drowned out. I hate to say it, but the storytelling here has the rambling characteristics of the kind of story you might hear from a high-as-a-kite stoner. Even the dialogue - always a strength of Smith's work, is only so-so. There are little nuggets of goodness to be found in the film, to be sure - many courtesy of Parks as Abin - but the dialogue just doesn't feel as sharp as what we're used to from Smith. But speaking of high-as-a-kite, it makes you wonder if perhaps Smith's heavy pot habit is taking a toll on the quality and coherance of his creative output (judging by this and his recent Batman comics work, the answer may well be yes).

I think there is some really fertile ground here for a great movie to spring out from. Smith toys with a number of tantalizing ideas that a better movie would have more fully fleshed-out. There are some good moments of creepiness, and some interesting attempts at social commentary. But Red State ultimately has little to say that makes sense or makes you think. As a fan of Smith, I hope that he can rebound from this miss before he hangs it up.

My Grade: C

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