Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Release Review: Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)

Red State, the ambitious departure from writer/director Kevin Smith, is set in a small town dominated by an extremist fundamentalist preacher, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). In the film’s opening scene, a teenager, Travis (Michael Angarano), is being driven to school when he notices members of the Five Points Church protesting the funeral of a local gay teenager who was found murdered. As Travis enters class, he blames his lateness on the demonstration, which prompts his teacher to discuss how Cooper and his church have been the focus of ridicule, and how he was even considered too right wing for the Nazis. Later, Jared (Kyle Gallner), a friend of Travis, convinces Travis and their friend Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) to accompany him to meet a woman for group sex.

They meet the woman who sent out the invitation, Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Excited by the prospect, the boys drink the beers she supplies and encourages them to drink. They soon discover they have been drugged and find themselves held as hostages by the Cooper congregation, with Cooper intending to kill them as an example of the Godless undesirables his cult protests. Cooper indulges in a lengthy, hate-filled sermon before revealing another captive, a homosexual lured through similar means as they boys.

When news of the hostage situation and the death of a deputy who investigates the compound is made known to the incompetent Sherrif Wynan (Stephen Root), he calls in an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), to front a search of the church for suspected firearms. A violent shootout between an ATF team and the machine gun-wielding Christians ensues, as the surviving teens find themselves embroiled in the struggle.

For a film that only has a running time of 80 odd minutes, it does feel long, but doesn't add up to much. The films unsubtlety in theme is reinforced in the closing credits, as the cast members are divided into subheadings, but save for a particularly long-winded monologue from Parks at the middle of the film (which is predominantly exposition anyway), Red State is bookended by the annoying antics of the horny teens and monotonous shots of Christian terrorists firing machine guns at members of the ATF.

This is very evidently a Kevin Smith indie flick. The film comprises of grimy handheld photography and only a few signature locations. In Smith style, the characters are constantly talking and the dialogue is endowed with copious amounts of crude profanity and filthy sex talk. It's also full of over-explanation and blatant exposition. Amongst an array of tonal shifts, Smith gives Red State an edgy realism through a technique that seems to involve the running characters holding a hand-held camera up to their face.

Red State gets some points for being shocking, and offering up plenty of surprises, though it is rarely suspenseful. We are asked to switch our sympathies (in the second half to the Christian extremists, who are facing annihilation) and are never given clear protagonist. What I fail to endure is the introduction of unlikeable, irritating characters that we are then supposed to relate to and support when more repulsive characters are introduced.

I rarely found the film to be funny, which is another avenue where I felt the film suffered. I found the early sex jokes to be lazy, unoriginal writing and completely unbelievable. Why the kids would wish to have group sex with the suspicious-looking and much older Melissa Leo is beyond me. The cynical humour apparent later didn’t rub well with me either, though it was a better example of Smith's skills. 

Michael Parks is the obvious stand out here. Best known for his cameo performances, he is the most notable lead in Red State. He is charismatic and compelling, giving it his all. His extremist ideologies – most notably his vile monologue about homosexuality, accentuated by chosen excerpts from the Bible – and his often gravelly, unintelligible tone, leave a viewer feeling cold and distant.

John Goodman, who appears at about the half way mark, is excellent too. He becomes a relatable character, who is conflicted following disagreeable orders from his superiors. Though he is convincing, the one-sided phone conversations, which are once again purely expositional, became tiring. This is an entirely personal quibble, but I am also tired of Melissa Leo. She seems to be typecast at playing variations of white trash – The Fighter, Conviction and now in this. Sporting a horrifying wig, she overacts in a maddening performance, while Stephen Root plays his usual slimy, nervous, homosexually oriented character.

With the exception of Clerks (which was fantastic) and Dogma (which intermittently amused me) I cannot declare being a fan of Smith’s films. Jay and Silent Bob was abysmal and Cop Out was even worse. Despite being a bold venture from Smith, whom many rightfully attribute singularly to making crude, stoner comedies full of fart jokes; Red State still didn’t work for me. The film has some pretty evident pacing issues, especially in the second half, and just when there is some build-up of tension, it is relinquished in favour of more exposition. 

Red State is messy and full of hatred. It shifts sympathies and blurs the heroes and villains. Kevin Smith, raised a Christian, expresses hatred towards unchecked fundamentalists and right wing extremists who stain Christianity, and Federal agencies, like the ATF, who operate above and beyond the law. There are some attempts to reconcile such radical notions; through Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe), Sarah's daughter and reluctant member of the cult who wishes to save her younger sister and the other children, and through Goodman’s character, who morally opposes his orders. While there were some flourishes of brilliance, I found the film grotesque and pointless and ultimately hard to recommend.

My Rating: ★★ 1/2 (C-)


  1. I found the premise intruiging (IS THAT HOW IT'S SPELLED ... who knows!) but I have to admit the trailer let me down. Rental?

    I like films that depict hate in magnitude.

  2. Intriguing. Close! Yeah, it's full of hate, so you might like it. I think it's a rental option, however :-)

  3. I'm in the minority I realise, but I loved this film (it's currently my 2nd favourite of the year, behind A SEPERATION and just ahead of SENNA).

    What I liked about it most of all, I think, is that it's unpredictable. Like truly unpredictable, which I think is incredibly rare these days. I didn't mind that there were no likable characters (and I think that explains why you didn't find the sex jokes funny - these kids were meant to be sleazy pricks; that said, some of the satire, and especially the epilogue, I found hilarious).

    I'm also not sure I agree about it being obviously a Kevin Smith film. If you know going in, you can pick up some of the language he uses, but if you didn't know I don't think there's any way you would guess who directed it. I also LOVED the visceral, edgy cinematography, which is odd for me because I'm normally not a fan of shaky-cam.

    All that said, I do understand why people aren't digging it. It's an ugly film, both thematically and, one could argue, in it's composition. Either way, you've argued your points very well (as always). And I'll certainly agree that Melissa Leo wasn't too crash hot. Weakest part of the cast for me (which was a surprise)

  4. It's great that you are so enthusiastic about the film - and I think it is so interesting to see how films are received so differently. It was unpredictable. I admit, there were some surprises and it was genuinely shocking at times - the sermons, the elimination of some of the characters. The opening third did irk me no end, but I think the film improved later (through Parks and Goodman) but I found the shifting sympathies hard to take. There was something in the dialogue that sparked my recognition of Kevin Smith, but you're right, it is such a deviation from the norm for him that it isn't in fact 'obvious'.

    Yeah, I just didn't think it amounted to all that much. His agendas were clear, and there was some bold work, but I found it grotesque and irritative for the most part, unfortunately. Thanks for the comment!