If anyone ever convinces you to watch Kevin Smith‘s Red State by describing it as a horror movie, you have my permission to punch that person square in the nose. When he gets up, and it will undoubtably be a guy, punch him again. Continue to do so until you feel better for having wasted ninety minutes of your life on this dreck. This is a thriller, albeit a lackluster one. Ostensibly, it is the tale of a trio of teenagers who, in their pursuit of vice, run afoul of a local evangelical preacher. Violence, hate-speech, and gunplay ensue. The preacher, played by Michael Parks, is fifty percent Fred Phelps, fifty percent David Koresh, and one-hundred percent creepy. When we first see him, he’s leading a protest at the funeral of a dead student who happened to be gay. It’s easy to revile him in this moment, and we are meant to. But when we next happen upon him, he’s in his element, delivering a sermon to his tiny flock of believers. At first, he’s saying things that are perfectly reasonable, if a bit hyperbolic. The world’s a bad place, and only by getting right with God will we make it to a better place. When he talks of loving God out of respect and fear, it rings true. He rails against those who preach a Christianity of tolerance, and though we recoil as observers, if we were to be a part of his congregation, it’s easy to see how we might get swept up in this belief. This ten or fifteen minutes of dialogue is some of the best Smith has written, and Parks delivers the lines flawlessly, seeming at turns patronly and menacing. Smith’s direction here is excellent as well. What we initially believe to be a chapel is something far more sinister, but he doles out the details at a pace that can only be described as restrained and deliberate, adjectives not normally associated with his work. It’s in this one scene where Smith shows an ability to build tension and suspense I’d not previously thought him capable of.
And then the whole thing goes to shit. The ATF, in the form of a not-quite-fit-enough-for-duty John Goodman, Kevin Pollack, and what looks to be five or six faceless agents show up to rescue the teens, shots are fired, and the situation devolves into a Waco-esque nightmare. Orders are given that would never be followed by a rational person (no matter what the right-wingers in this country would have you believe), and the film loses any sense of direction it had. Halfway through, it dawned on me that Smith had violated one of the principles of quality filmmaking; he had removed everyone I potentially cared about from the narrative.
Understand, I’ve been a Kevin Smith fan for years. I loved Clerks and to this day think Chasing Amy has the most realistic and touching love triangle ever put to film. I even enjoyed Mallrats and Dogma, flawed though they were. You can knock Smith for his wooden directing and gratuitous use of foul language, but he always seemed to be able to create characters that were engaging and that elicited empathy. Here, he seems to have traded character development for an over-abundance of shaky-cam. Every time we start to get invested in a character, he or she either undercuts our caring with reprehensible (and unexplained) behavior or is killed. The worst insult is the introduction of a deus ex machina that had vaguely interesting connotations until it was undercut in the very next scene. And if all of this wasn’t enough, Smith decides to end with Goodman delivering a monologue reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones‘ at the end of No Country For Old Men that is as stilted as it is incongruous. No thank you, sir. At this rate, Hit Somebody, Smith’s next and final film (if he is to be believed) will have to be great if he is to be remembered as the writer of interesting characters he once was.
[Red State is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix.]