REVIEW: Kevin Smith's Red State Offers Easy Cynicism and Little Else
If you need yet another sign of how impossible it's become to separate the public persona of Kevin Smith from his films, look no further than the posters for Red State proclaiming it "AN UNLIKELY FILM FROM THAT KEVIN SMITH," as if the film were actually directed by the man's prolific Twitter account. In the last few years, the funny, profane voice that's made Smith's dialogue so distinctive has essentially outgrown the films that used to showcase it, as Smith's podcasts, his sometimes pugnacious social media feed and his speaking tours have made any cinematic output all but beside the point. When he made a splash at Sundance in January premiering his latest work Red State, it was more for the live auction he was reportedly going to hold to sell distribution rights after the screening than for the film itself.
I first reviewed Red State at that festival for another site, and mused at the time, not long after Smith had offered up a metaphorical middle finger to the press and industry, "There are a lot of lovely, very nice people who've made lousy movies, and vice-versa. If Red State were good, it'd hardly be the first time an asshole had turned out a worthy work of art or entertainment." I didn't think it was good. Eight months later, with the film finally getting a release on VOD and in theaters, it seemed worth a revisit to see if that opinion had been shaped in any way by Smith's campaign of personality going in, if taken as a more stand-alone experience Red State would look any different.
While I'm still unconvinced that, without Smith's name on it, Red State would attract or warrant much attention, the most significant and interesting aspect of it is the shift it represents in Smith's directorial style. There's camera movement, including handheld work in some of the action sequences, a welcome change from a filmmaker whose tendencies in the past have been to point a static camera at the actors and just let them talk. There's an appropriately chilly tone to the color scheme and more interesting lighting choices. In terms of look, at least, Red State showcases promising signs of growth. The film follows a bifurcated structure that's more dramatic on second glance, the point of view shifting from the intended teenage victims of the murderous Five Points Church to the ATF agents who would in turn make victims of the congregation. That jump in perspective keeps you on your toes in terms of narrative -- there's no clear-cut protagonist, no forthright force of good, no one safe to side with or count on to make it through alive.
These signs of ambition are admirable, but as an overall film Red State is still a slog, a goading, ham-handed affair that's excruciatingly convinced of its own cultural relevance. There's the Westboro Baptist Church-inspired religious cult who don't just preach that God hates sinners, they've taken it on themselves to kill those sinners themselves. Their leader, Abin Cooper (a laudable Michael Parks), stops the film dead for an ominous sermon that creeps closer to camp as it drags on, as his flock, including his daughter Sara (Melissa Leo), beams beatifically at his harangue of hate. The zealots lure a trio of horny high school boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) who think they're meeting an older woman for a hookup into their compound. The local sheriff (Stephen Root) is closeted and considers covering up for Cooper in exchange for the keeping of his secret, while the theoretically solid ATF forces that arrive halfway through, led by John Goodman as Joseph Keenan, turn out to be just as nuts as the religious radicals -- "Fuck people like this, they're animals," sneers one.
The concepts in Red State may be more loaded now than when the film first screened for festival audiences, as we ramp up toward the 2012 election and the culture war escalates alongside. But Smith isn't up to doing anything other than setting up caricatures and then knocking them down. That the law enforcement monolith is represented as being just as nasty as the Five Points crew doesn't mean that either side resembles a group of recognizable human beings. Telling an anecdote about two dogs fighting over a scrap of food toward the end of the film, a character plainly delivers the Red State moral as "People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe." This chiding of both sides of the divide hardly seems justified coming from a film that can't find a sliver of hope in either -- after so much provocation, Red State itself only has easy cynicism on offer.