Friday, October 21, 2011
The best thing that can be said about Kevin Smith’s Red State is that it’s better than Blue State, a lame romantic comedy with Breckin Meyer and Anna Paquin that came out after the 2004 election. Blue State was about a young Democrat who moved to Canada after George W. Bush won reelection. Smith’s audacious, ultra-violent new movie has a similarly political bent, but it doesn’t quite deliver the goods on the level of horror. Plus, he’s arguably covered the same material before with more rewarding results. I think his fans should see it but this is ultimately an admirable failure on Smith’s part.
I knew surprisingly little going in, only that this was being billed as Smith’s first no-bones-about-it horror movie, and that it was at least partially inspired by Fred Phelps and his vilely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. I was eager to see the director branch out and to get his take on Phelps. As a grad student at KU, I would sometimes see members of Phelps’ church protesting outside the student union, and to me they almost seemed to fit the trashy, willfully ignorant caricature of red-state America. If anybody deserved to be cast as the villains in a horror movie, it was these people.
The opening scenes certainly feel like a horror film. Smith has reimagined The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Craigslist era, as three high school boys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) follow an online invitation for group sex, only to fall into the clutches of the murderous Five Points Church. The boys’ efforts to escape and the ensuing showdown between members of the church and ATF agents take up a full hour of the picture.
When I realized the second half of the movie would be a long shoot-out, I was titillated but also a little apprehensive. Smith is famous for his sloppy approach to editing and coverage, and sure enough Red State is often visually incoherent; there are some shots where members of the Five Points Church appear to be inadvertently shooting at each other. This is the same lazy approach to stunts and action that Smith brought to his sell-out Hollywood picture, the aptly titled Cop Out. What the violence in Red State has going for it is an unusually high celebrity body count, which brought to mind the shocking cameos in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Hurt Locker – though comparisons to Bigelow’s genius filmmaking end there. Smith showed far more flair and imagination with the carnage perpetrated by Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) in Dogma.
I’d hoped Red State would be more like Dogma, which is by far Smith’s most ambitious screenplay to date. With that movie, he showed a strong point of view towards religion and brought an incisive moral order to the material. For all the promise and provocative nature of Red State, which depicts a fundamentalist church that executes gays, the movie is surprisingly random and meaningless. Smith seems to have nothing more on his mind than shock value, and the fact that he teases us with an apocalyptic climax only to quickly backpedal away from it is an unforgivable sin.
Fortunately, the director has a trump card. Viewers are probably most familiar with Michael Parks for his performance as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Smith has given Parks one of the best roles of his life as Abin Cooper, the deranged leader of the Five Points Church. Terrifying, theatrical and often hilarious despite the bile that spews from his mouth, Cooper puts on quite a show, and so does Parks. Red State is at its strongest when Parks is at his funniest, which may be as good a sign as any that Smith should get back to what he does best now that he’s tried his hand at horror.