Times have not been good for Kevin Smith, the once highly respected geek/independent film icon. Smith seemed to be on a pretty big comeback when he successfully made a sequel to his breakthrough comedy, Clerks, in 2006 and his 2008 film Zack and Miri Make a Porno was reasonably well liked even if it didn’t set the box office on fire. Then he made Cop Out, which was by all accounts a horrible movie and his reaction to this relative failure seemed less than classy. Smith sent out a little hate-gram to all his critics on twitter and the critics in their usually over-defensive way took this way too seriously and lashed right back. Smith looked like he was down in public opinion so naturally he decided to scorch the earth in Hollywood and release his next movie, the long rumored political horror film Red State, through an elaborate self-release strategy seeking to exploit his large internet presence to get the film seen without the major Hollywood promoting machine. Now that Red State has finally arrived we can forget about all that bullshit and see whether the movie itself is worth all this trouble.
The film, as I suppose you could guess, is set in a rural area of an unnamed republican leaning heartland state. During the film’s opening moments it seems more than a little bit like Smith’s earlier films with profane teenagers talking about and desiring sex. This interests lead to them seeking a hookup with an anonymous woman on the internet who’s interested in getting screwed by all three young men simultaneously, a proposition which these horny adolescents are keen to accept. After they drive out to the trailer she supposedly lives in they are drugged and kidnapped, and upon waking they learn that they have been kidnapped by an extremist Christian cult called the Five Points Church who seek to execute them for their sinful desires. What the Five Points Church doesn’t know is that these events will eventually tip off the ATF to their location and would result in a tense standoff at their doorstep.
This is clearly a genre film, but it’s a little hard to pin down exactly what genre it is. It has been billed as a horror film, but there’s not a lot of suspense here and the violence is usually rather quick and not wildly graphic, at least not by the standards set by the Eli Roths of the world. The film could easily be labeled a satire of sorts, but it isn’t really looking for laughs during most of its runtime and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a comedy. The film actually comes very close to being an action movie in its second half, but it isn’t necessarily designed so that the audience will empathize with any particular combatant and viscerally root for them. I suppose if I were to describe this as anything it would be as an exploitation film, and I don’t necessarily say that in relation to that term’s negative connotations. This is the kind of exploitation film that Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez were celebrating when they made Grindhouse and it also reminded me of Rob Zombies The Devil’s Rejects in a number of ways.
The religious cult at the film’s center seems like a cross between Westboro Baptist Church and the Branch Davidians. They meld the former’s homophobic rantings and PR acumen with the latter’s paranoia and interest in firearms. The people within the church are not the unwashed rednecks that one would normally associate with Christian extremism; in fact it’s disturbing just how much they look like normal suburbanites. They are led by a hatful son of a bitch named Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who rails against the “politically correct” mainline protestant preachers because they don’t want to murder sinners or something. The film’s politics are in some ways rather muddled. Kevin Smith is not all that interested in the nuances of our culture wars and instead focuses in on what he feels are the fears at the core of both of America’s culture wars: the left wing fear of being murdered by religious fanatics for enacting their first amendment right to engage in four-way sex and the right wing’s fear of being murdered by the government for enacting their second amendment right to amass massive armories for the purposes of violently overthrowing the government.
Smith has never been much of a visual stylist, but the camera work in Red State often looks downright amateurish. Smith is oviously trying to evoke a sort of raw hand-held feel along the lines of a 70s horror film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes, and this does work at least a little during some of the film’s climactic action scenes, but during the quieter dialogue scenes it just looks ugly and unpleasant. I also found some of Smith’s dialogue to be quite poor at times, especially in the scenes between the teenage friends in the film’s first act which felt like an exercise in how to use the work “fuck” as many times as possible into every single sentence. While the filmmaking here is less than pristine, there are some good performances to be found. Michael Parks is appropriately self-riotous and creepy as the patriarch of the villainous cult, but Melissa Leo is even creepier as his devoted daughter who is just as willing to pick up an assault rifle and defend the enclave as her father is. John Goodman is also really strong here as an ATF agent who needs to control and explosive situation while dealing with some difficult orders.
If Kevin Smith feels like he’s made a truly insightful film about our times, he’s wrong; in fact a lot of what he’s made is a mess. However, there are certain things about it that do work. For one thing I think the action elements of the film work a lot better than I expected them to and that means that the film’s final act works a lot better than the preceding two. Consequently, the film seems to end on a strong note that almost makes you forget about some of the shakier things that were going on in the first half. This is a weird movie, and not one that I can necessarily say I liked. I do think that the film will appeal to fans of genre cinema who will recognize what Smith is going for, and I do think that the film is worth seeing for the curious, but it’s definitely a bumpy ride.
**1/2 out of Four