Red State is Kevin Smith’s first horror film and by the go of things probably his last. Yes, a horror film, no big deal, not worth mentioning except that it’s from the same guy who made the Clerks franchise and Jay & Silent Bob and The Smodcast Network. You’d think a guy who seems to have the whole packaging thing going on would have done another package but instead he’s gone astray, made a horror flick. I suppose it would be as surprising as Michael Moore making an action movie or a romantic comedy with a happy ending. We’d watch the thing because you’d have to. We all want to see our heroes crash and burn every so often just to remind us it’s not all cake and corn flakes but we’re right back there rooting and hollering when they get back up, make a million dollars, spend two weeks in all the press then screw up all over again. It’s a circle. It’s inevitable. It’s why we care so damn much.
Red State is as much a gamble as it is anything else, a departure that stands a good chance of going too far from Kevin Smith land and alienating fans and followers or not far enough and audiences figure they’ve had enough Clerks reboots and choose the remake of Footloose instead. Red State is curious enough though, simply because it’s Kevin Smith. Even when he’s doing something OK his films are entertaining, always local color variations on characters and scenarios that are both familiar – comforting in the way mom’s pancakes make you feel like everything is OK in the universe – and askew like you should care because it’s flawed, imperfect, just like us. Smith has a knack for putting us in the middle of his films through dialogue – quick-wit and prickly, multi-purposed and well suited in the way Tarantino makes ordinary important but only for seconds at a time so as not to make it boring. Smith is celebrated for his mundane sense of order, perfectly astute in adolescent rage against the machine wearing black t-shirts and face jewelry with skateboards at the mall (Mallrats) and discombobulated angels circumventing biblical laws for personal gain at the cost of the universe (Dogma). Up until now Smith has mastered adventure-absurdity meets comedy-fantasy, but his decision to navigate a socially aware, critically conscious film about nefarious religion and institutionalized extremism without the requisite funny feels like the filmmaker drawing a line in the sand and daring us to cross it.
You cannot fully appreciate or properly ridicule Red State without screening it. You could probably say that about most films, but in the case of Kevin Smith there is usually something, somewhere nestled in with all the crap that ends up with five minutes of rewarding; kinda like digging to the bottom of the Cracker Jack box to find that one half-burnt, caramelized kernel that’s not quite popped and not quite not-popped that’s equal amounts of salty and sweet and when you crack it between your teeth it feels like you can make it through one more bad movie. In a Kevin Smith film it’s not about the Cracker Jack prize so much as everything else that is happening all around it and informing that tiny plastic prize, mass-produced-meaningless in China or Pakistan dreaming of the American dream. But in order to fully appreciate Red State you must have a rudimentary experience with Kevin Smith. If this is your first film, start with his third film, Mallrats (1995) and Jersey Girl (2004) if you haven’t seen anything else. Mallrats illustrates Smith’s ear for the natural rhythms and melodies of dialogue and the surgical precision by which he fashions minute detail and idiosyncrasies in his characters. While Jersey Girl is a lesser film, heavily flawed and poorly received at the box office (boxofficemojo shows it maybe made a million dollars, rottentomatoes shows a %41 rating and metacritic waivers at 43 out of 100) it proves his ability to tell stories and create worlds with complicated characters; admittedly Jersey Girl is not a good film but it gives you a look at the filmmaker’s successes and failures and this can be more telling than by just watching the films that everyone else likes. The only way to truly know a filmmaker without watching everything they have ever made (which is always preferred) is to employ this technique. Trust me, it works. In addition, if you haven’t been following his widely colorful side-life from his movies, there’s more than enough reason to google the man or just stumble over to the universe he created ‘View Askewniverse’ which is featured in several of his films, comics and spawned a television series; it’s also the name of his production company.
Red State begins with a couple of middle of the bottom, aimless adolescents staggering through everyday American squalor. In order to pass time and quell their raging hormones, they connect up with a lonely older woman on an internet site that turns out to be a ruse for a fundamentalist religious group that plans to use them as sacrifices for their cause. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, the group attracts the attention of the local police and eventually the ATF which sets everything in motion for the rest of the story. If you think you see things coming and can speculate as to the outcome of police and crazy religious compounds where people with issues live with an arsenal of weapons, you’re right. Kevin Smith doesn’t pretend to be original any more than he tries to hide the blatant similarities to just about every movie ever made on the subject. John Goodman portrays the ATF agent in charge of the assault on the compound and while Goodman does what he can with the part it’s painfully obvious there simply isn’t enough for him to do. Michael Parks is clearly the standout actor involved, his performance of the David Koresh/Jim Jones/Joseph Smith inspired fanatical leader of the armed encampment is razor-sharp and he delivers his lines with convincing detail. I can’t help but draw similarities to Chris Cooper’s performance in American Beauty as the confused but determined neighbor next door and the way he maximizes every expression and innuendo. Melissa Leo seems lost in her role, one-dimensional and ordinary. Red State frequently under utilizes the amassed talent as many ensemble films do, for example Nolan’s The Dark Knight got the balance of the relationships wrong between the protagonist (Batman) and the antagonist (Joker). There are some cinematic conventions that are at the core of every film, structural elements related to the role of certain characters, such as the protagonist/antagonist, the three act structure and so on. Some things can be tinkered with and by all rights there are others that cannot without jeopardizing the entire film. Smith understands this but it appears that he got caught up in the message behind the film and this got in the way of him working out the particulars of character, story and consequences in the most effective way.
Where Red State fails most spectacularly is with Smith’s reliance on the pulpit, literally and figuratively to make a statement about morality and extremism. The issues are part of the story but for some reason Smith is compelled to make more out of them. The entire film comes to an abrupt halt as the characters carry out lengthy conversations and debates about the issues that are not only awkward but unnecessary. Good stories engage us, they compel us to connect through emotionally endearing sentiments that we all belong to a shared past, present and future. Good stories entertain us because they contain reflections of laughter, sadness and sentiments we understand or find truthful. Smith loses grasp of these fundamental principles and as a result we cannot commit to his story or care about his characters in a completely meaningful way because it all becomes so exaggerated and stylized. If this was his intention I must say it was a bad choice. The exposition is clunky and after all is said and done the film doesn’t really end, it’s as though the story is left out in the open as a way of suggesting the issues themselves are out in the open too. If that is the case it might make sense but it ends up feeling like lazy writing or an inability to connect visual storytelling with dialogue, characters and themes. I’m immediately reminded of Inception from Christopher Nolan and how his solution to convoluted visual storytelling was to chime in every five minutes with exposition to tell us what we’re watching, how we should feel, and what we should make of it never mind how annoying or distracting this is for audiences paying attention. There’s nothing wrong with complexity and breaking conventions, in side stepping traditional narrative storytelling but treating your audience as though they are automatically incapable of following along is as insulting as it is distracting.
The idea of putting all this stuff in your movie and forcing two controversial issues together to see what happens makes for the best kind of films, powerful stuff. Alexander Payne’s 1996 movie Citizen Ruth with Laura Dern, about a drug addled malcontent who winds up pregnant and thrust into the maelstrom of the warring factions on either side of the abortion debate is good example of complex story telling with a message. Citizen Ruth is vastly superior in the way it tells us something about the subject without resorting to exposition and blasé blasé monologues. Red State eventually loses sight of story and the characters end up like pawns on either side of a chessboard that have a place in the game but little individual value. On this basis there are strong performances here and there, the trademark Kevin Smith banter and chatty-Kathy conversations, characters with something to say and curious ways to say it. Red State needs us to set aside our expectations and for some that’s easier than for others.
It’s unclear what’s up next for Kevin Smith. He’s no stranger to lackluster films and disappointment at the box office. He’s seen his share of negative reviews, critical opinions about his professional and personal life, yet he remains a filmmaker of interest and continues to expand his viewaskew universe. Red State is not his worst film but it clearly dims in comparison to previous accomplishments. I’ve written here and elsewhere that it is hard to relegate films to a simple rating, to justly, accurately and effectively convey the overall ‘watchability’ of a movie with thumbs and stars, clapping hands and popcorn containers, numbers, signs and symbols or even movie stubs that read ‘miss it’ and ‘see it’ but we have to start someplace.