Cineworld Glasgow, 05.10.11
Those of us of the right age to have been a teenager in the 1990’s hold a certain soft spot for Kevin Smith. With the grainy, self-funded, low-budget Clerks (1994), Smith found a unique brand of humour that connected with a generation of film-goers crying out for smart, well written comedy that spoke about the world that they lived in. He followed that with Mallrats (1995) and Chasing Amy (1997), and this trilogy shows all the Smith hallmarks that have followed him through his career – crisp, smart, self-referential dialogue, crafted round simple, convenient plots. Critics would point to over-wordiness and the flat, plain look of these films, a lack of directional style or ambition, but these indie films were speaking to the young generation, and particularly found a devoted audience in the home video market. They could even be so devoted to forgive Smith for casting Alanis Morrisette as God in the more ambitious but flawed Dogma (1999).
In the new millennium, perhaps in reaction to the critical reception for Dogma, Smith seemed to run out of anything new or incisive to say, and reverted to less ambitious fare with the disappointing Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). That was nothing compared to the backlash that met Jersey Girl (2004), a determined effort by Smith to make a mainstream romantic comedy that only served to highlight his limited range of writing and directing, and worse, alienated his loyal indie fan base, leading to deserved accusations of Smith selling out and abandoning his indie roots. Clerks II (2006) was a lazy sequel, but at least showed signs of past glories, the same can be said for Zack And Miri Make A Porno (2008), which promised a return to his edgier early comedy, but despite its plot, felt more like a Hollywood teen comedy than any of his previous work. Then in 2010, Smith, for reasons unknown, made Cop Out, an action comedy buddy movie with an uninterested Bruce Willis and deeply irritating Tracy Morgan. Smith, for the first time working with someone else’s script, in a genre that severely showed his weakness in direction, again suffered deserved accusations of selling out, but that could have been forgiven if he had made a success of it. It was such a poor film that his fall from grace was inevitable.
Unfortunately, Smith’s reaction to the critical mauling his film received was not to humbly admit faults but to rebel against critics and fans alike. Always known for being outspoken, Smith seemed determined to defend the indefensible, and showing little signs of self-awareness, seemed unable to admit he had sold out in a way that other American indie film-makers of his generation had so far not done. His reaction against the film critics that rightly trounced Cop Out spoke of a director blinded by his own early success and dangerously starting to believe his own hype. Red State then, though Smith might not be aware of it, or willing to accept it, is something of a vital film for Smith’s reputation. Some initial signs boded well, principally a return to working form his own script and a lower budget indie style approach. Others, like the awful use in the trailer of the line ‘From @ThatKevinSmith’, worryingly suggested Smith hadn’t learned his lesson. Should a film trailer be used as an opportunity to self publicise one’s self on Twitter? It smacks of an inflated ego, the preservation of which is more important than the films he continues to make.
So to the film itself. In truth, like many of Smith’s recent films it’s a mixed bag. Again, he seems determined to move away from the smart mouth slacker comedies where he is most comfortable, and again that move away has only served to highlight some of his weaknesses. Most disappointingly, working form his own script, Smith seems to have either lost, or has decided to avoid, his usual self-referential comedy which he writes so well. An opening scene set in a school classroom, discussing the local religious cult should have served as an opportunity for some classic Smith dialogue, but instead feels forced and falls flat. Throughout Smith seems less comfortable writing in the American South vernacular as opposed to his normal native New Jersey voice.
In this opening scene we are introduced to our three nominal leads, Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner). They are presented as typical high school teenagers, which makes it quite unlikely that they would go about meeting a prostitute in the middle of nowhere in the hope of having group sex together, but somehow, they all seem quite comfortable doing just that. They are in fact quite unsympathetic characters, and this is another shortfall of the film. Throughout, there is no one for the audience to feel sorry for, or to identify with. When the ‘prostitute’ (a wasted Melissa Leo) turns out to be a member of the local religious cult, led by Abin Cooper (an excellent and creepy Michael Parks), the three boys are drugged and awake in the cult’s church, about to be sacrificed to God. The idea that a religious cult would actively hunt, trap and corrupt men on the internet, by setting up a member as a prostitute, is of course, contrived nonsense, and it is never fully explained by Smith why the cult have acted in this way, while at the same time, for example, ignoring the town Sheriff, who they know to have committed homosexual acts, but seem willing to ignore.
Smith devouts his longest scene, and his best writing, to the sermons of Cooper, which presents the question of what exactly he is trying to say with this film. There are interesting questions to be asked about religious cults, and the role religion has to play in American life, but Cooper is quite obviously presented as a deluded control freak, determined to hold power over his small flock. Yet he is given ample screen time to explain his distorted beliefs. His sermons are the only time the film pauses before rushing on. Parks is also the only actor to really shine in the film, mixing charisma with an unswerving nastiness.
As the three boys await their fate, the film seems set to become a typical American horror film, but then suddenly veers onto a completely different tack by introducing John Goodman’s ATF agent Joseph Keenan. It’s part of the films messy feel that it jumps from slacker sex comedy to horror to violent action as the ATF attempt to raid the cult’s church and are met by heavy machine gunfire. As an example of the films random feel, when we meet Keenan he is awoken in his bed and up flashes a full screen title reading ‘4:47AM’. But this is the only time we are placed in any time within the film, so why is it there? We know it’s morning as the sun is dawning outside and Keenan has just been woken. There are no further times given, so it does not serve to start a procedural scale for the ATF’s actions. It’s just a random, pointless interjection.
Rather than present a government agent we can cheer on, the ATF team turn out to be ruthless killers, determined to eliminate all of the cult members once violence has broken out, in order to cover up their own incompetence. Keenan agrees meekly to go along with this command and so a violent half hour ensues. There are plenty of unexpected and shocking deaths, but they are shot, and mount up, in such a way that its unclear if Smith is intending to shock the audience or is playing it for laughs as it becomes more and more ridiculous and violent. Again, Smith’s inability to direct action sequences is shown. His solution to create a frightening chase sequence seems to rely solely on strapping a camera to someones chest and exposing the audience to disorientating shaky running shots, with no attempt to show any scene geography. Goodman gets some good lines and moments, especially a brief epilogue scene were he is debriefed by his younger ATF bosses, but his character is as unlikable as any of the cult members we have been introduced to.
An abrupt and random ending feels very unsatisfying and again leaves one wondering what the point of the whole exercise is. As a simple entertainment it doesn’t deliver, veering as it does from genre to genre but not succeeding as any and lacking basic plot logic, while as an entry into a debate on religion and religious cults, and the role of government in policing them, it offers very little rational thought. Louis Theroux’s enthralling documentaries on the subject (The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and The Most Hated Family in America in Crisis (2011)) are much more valuable and illuminating than anything Smith has to say here. There is no attempt to examine or debate the culture of the cult or the law enforcement.
Having said all that, Red State is at least a hundred times better than Cop Out, and is a step back towards his indie roots and away from his dabbling with Hollywood formula. In amongst his loudmouth, outspoken rants, he may yet still have something more worthwhile left to say.
Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.