I’d like to applaud Kevin Smith. Unfortunately my applause will not be for finally making another decent movie, but I will give it to the guy, at least he branches out and tries something new with Red State. For a lot of us that are familiar with Smith’s body of work as a director/actor, his self-referential shtick has long since gotten old. Ever since Mallrats he’s been plopping out one ill-conceived and obnoxious turd of a film after another. The formula is the same with a few exceptions: add one part slacker comedy, throw in some pervy humor or fart jokes, maybe have a few moments where the characters breach “the fourth wall” by looking out at the viewer and acknowledging the lameness of whatever pun or allusion they’re making (making said joke funny see? …right.), and tie it all up in the end with some cheesy moment of uplifting realization.
This whole irreverent approach-thing worked for Smith with Clerks and Mallrats I thought, but let’s face it, he’s beaten that horse well past the point of death. In fact he took a break, burned a spliff, fixed himself some hot pockets and then came back to beat it some more.
So when I read the premise for Red State I was cautiously optimistic. In terms of plot and genre it’s an obvious departure from his other stuff, and while it’s not horrible I think the idea would’ve been better served by another director. It’s based on the Westboro Baptist church and that cuddly curmudgeon Pastor Fred Phelps. You know, the crowd that pickets the funerals of soldiers even though they weren’t gay because every time a soldier is killed or a natural disaster occurs it’s because we don’t shoot anyone who even remotely resembles a homosexual right on the spot? That crowd. Well Smith takes Phelps and Co. and pushes the idea of their hateful zealotry to the even-more-extreme.
It’s actually not that hard to imagine, especially with events like the Jonestown suicide or the Branch Davidian Waco disaster in mind. These fuckers are nuts. And the idea of taking their antics and applying them to a horror or horror-ish movie like Red State is one that was probably just waiting to be realized. Unfortunately Smith’s vision isn’t fully successful although he does make a few interesting choices here and there.
The movie starts off with three youths who through online correspondence learn of a sultry older female living out in the country who’s just jonesin’ for some of the ole’ three-hole treatment from the strapping young lads. So they set out one night to find out what the group-sex scene is all about only to be drugged by the woman who, as it happens, is not so sultry after all and is in fact the daughter of Abin Cooper, pastor of the homo-hatin’ Five Points Church. Uh oh.
Now, alot of people may be taken aback by the fact that Smith chooses an ostensibly heterosexual form of sexual deviance to get the protagonists into trouble with the homophobic cult, but personally I think it’s an interesting decision and it accomplishes something valuable: it suggests the idea that loonies like Cooper -or in real-life, Phelps- won’t stop at simply condemning homosexuals. The threat becomes more all-encompassing because we get the notion that anything more than fully-clothed, missionary-style sex -for procreational purposes only- will just not do for these people. I mean come on! If my buddies and I wanna hook up with a horny cougar for some rowdy degradation that’s between the four of us ok? And it certainly isn’t gay! I mean…no genital contact with the other guys…I mean…as little as possible…unless she’s into it…I mean…
I digress. So the three young men find themselves in the clutches of Pastor Abin and his congregation, which is extremely bad news for them considering the Five Points Church -unlike Westboro Baptist- is not content to simply pout outside of funerals brandishing signs of cartoon men fucking each other with “GOD HATES FAGS” printed -ironically- beneath the illustration. No, Abin and co intend to terminate these vile sodomites with extreme prejudice (pun intended).
This is where we get our real introduction to Abin Cooper and his ideology. Michael Parks portrays the demented pastor and this piece of casting is a pretty good get for Smith if you ask me. I thought Parks was amazing in the Kill Bill films, playing two roles which were so different I didn’t realize the same actor was playing both parts when i first watched them. He’s not bad here, but Kevin Smith’s inability to reign himself in rears it’s ugly head as we’re treated to a monologue by Cooper that just goes on way too long. He gets the tone of Cooper’s sermon eerily right as the reverend preaches the good news that god hates fags to his congregation. Seriously, I was reminded of being in church as a kid. The give and take between Cooper and his attentive congregation (which includes young children) is not far off in terms of the atmosphere of the rural church environment I remember (not that I was ever instructed to go out and murder homosexuals). The speech just lasts too fucking long and it messes up the pacing of the film.
After Cooper’s lengthy diatribe the movie veers into torture porn territory but thankfully it doesn’t linger there the way films like Hostel or Saw do. The congregation murders some unfortunate sodomite in front of our heros which leads to an ill-fated escape attempt by the three teenage captives. From here, the story progresses to a Waco Siege-style fiasco, a sequence in which Smith takes a jab at the federal government in the form of the ATF.
This is another one of his wiser decisions in my opinion. By taking a jab at another institution besides that of the religious wingnuts he adds another dimension to the film and moves it away from being just a rant against the Westboro types, but like the earlier sermon sequence the ATF stuff feels a bit clumsy and somehow not fully formed. So it doesn’t take Smith long to squander any credit he deserves for deciding to expand on the film’s theme.
Did I mention John Goodman was in this movie? He plays ATF Agent Joseph Keenan. Keenan heads up the group charged with sorting out the Five Points mess. (SPOILER ALERT: His unit fares even worse than the one Janet Reno sent into the Branch Davidian compound in 1993.) Unfortunately there’s not much to the role. Nevertheless Goodman makes a go of it as the movie climaxes with the siege.
Now, I’ve read that Kevin Smith had a different ending planned than the one we get. I won’t go into detail about it except to say that had the movie ended this way it would have been far more horrific, and that would’ve been a good thing. The film would’ve been more effective. It’s a shame that for whatever reason it was changed. A stronger finish might have been enough to redeem the film and lift it into the category of “pretty good” instead of just being mundane. Instead what we’re left with is something shabby and mediocre.
It’s disappointing, but it’s something I’ve come to expect from Smith. Look on the bright side: at least he didn’t have Alanis Morissette playing god in the movie. That will always remain the worst of his cinematic atrocities to me.
red state is currently available on netflix instant.