Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Alas, Kevin Smith's Red State (2011) is an artistic mess and a social/political failure.

Red State
88 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

There is something almost heartbreaking about seeing a popular filmmaker finally getting the chance to make his or her passion project, only to watch said film turn out to be an utter wreck and completely irrelevant both to cinema and to the subject matter that it attempts to discuss.  Such is Kevin Smith's Red State.  It is a failure on nearly every level and counter-intuitive to the ideas it seemingly wants to express.  Despite a cast of fine actors young and old, the film is a structural mess and resembles nothing less than the kind of bargain-basement direct-to-DVD thrillers that have littered the Netflix queues and Blockbuster shelves over the last ten years.  Whether or not this is Kevin Smith's worst film is beside the point (I have only seen about half of his films).  What matters is that Red State was his chance to put all of his cards on the table, to make a grand statement about a subject close to his heart.  Yet with a cast of his choosing and apparently no limitations beyond budget, Smith has failed artistically and ideologically. 

A token amount of plot: three young men (Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, and Nicholas Braun) answer an online ad for a random sexual encounter and make their way to the would-be meet-up house.  Once they arrive, they discover that the offer was basically a trap in order to ensnare would-be sexual sinners for denouncement and execution by the local fundamentalist church.  As they try to escape certain death, the chaos attracts the attention of federal agents (led by John Goodman) and a Waco-style stand-off seems imminent.  But as the body count rises and those trapped inside the compound begin to panic, just who is on the side of angels in this apparent battle between church and state?

On its face, the film wants to be a horror-thriller basically comparing the Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk to the more overtly violent cults such as the Branch Davidians.  The 'God Hates Fags' point-men are referenced by name in an opening scene that plays like a book report about intolerant Christian churches.  It's an interesting, if long-overdue idea, that is barely developed due to a jumpy and episodic first half that gives way to a wholly separate movie once John Goodman shows up.  Unfortunately, perhaps enamored by his actors, Smith doesn't know when to cut, so rambling 'tell, don't show' monologues go on for ten minutes at a time at several intervals during the film.  The initial fiery sermon delivered by Reverend Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) goes on for at least ten minutes, for no reason other than that Kevin Smith really wants you to know how vile he and his flock are.

The young victims are basically glorified red shirts, introduced only long enough to be killed (or perhaps escape?) when the plot requires it.  While it is nice that the film eventually expands beyond the 'young kids venture into parts unknown and get killed off' sub-genre, what it eventually becomes is no more satisfying.  The only character who carries any emotional and dramatic weight is Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), a young woman who realizes that the government may not plan on leaving any survivors and desperately tries to save the young children living in the compound.  The rest of the solid cast, which includes Melissa Leo, Steven Root, and Kevin Pollack, is wasted and given little of substance to do or say.

Kevin Smith has always been a better writer than a director.  But the borderline amateurishness on display is shocking for someone who has been making films for nearly twenty years.  There are countless scenes of characters basically giving lengthy expository monologues that have no credence to the story or could otherwise have been shown.  Without going into details, the climax of the film basically feels like Smith and company ran out of money and merely had to inform us of what occurred in the finale.  What's equally annoying is that there are nuggets of an interesting idea or two hidden in the mush.  The idea of a bloodthirsty religious cult being beset by an equally bloodthirsty federal government is worthwhile.  However, the dramatic meat of such a story, the plight of those caught in the middle, is only given a passing acknowledgement through Bishe's strong performance.

In the end, Red State arrives too late to work as a shocking exposé of far-right Christian hate groups, while offering no new wisdom to share about them.  In also making the government into the bad guy, Smith does nothing less than neuter whatever issues he wants to discuss regarding the dangers of such religious sects. He also plays into the (theoretical) fantasy that the current government is far-more dangerous than any (theoretical) heavily-armed hate group (be they religious or Tea Party-ish Ala Jonah Hex).  Even if you agree that said point of view has merit, Martin Scorsese already made that ironic commentary with Gangs of New York (another deeply flawed passion project) in 2002.  But even putting aside how the film fails as a social tract (which of course can be debated), it is a dull, fractured, and often lifeless picture that fails to terrify, thrill, or intrigue.  With precious screen-time devoted to Smith's trademark potty humor and rambling monologues, the film feels both far too long and painfully incomplete.  It is not scary, funny, or informative.  It feels like a new filmmaker's rough draft, not the decade-in-the-making thesis statement from a longtime director.

If Smith is serious about leaving behind the world of Jay and Silent Bob (with the excellent Clerks II being the finale), then Red State is a troubling sign that the man behind View Askew may have no place else to go.

Grade: D+        

For (old) thoughts on Red State and the future of Video On Demand, go HERE.    


Kurt said...

I've seen all of Kevin Smith's films except for "Cop Out," and liked only "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma," (I had a friend who loved Smith) though neither as much as everyone else seemed to. I was looking forward to this because, though I think he's a terrible director, I always felt like he had an interesting voice as a writer and that he could do something really great. He just needed something to write about. "Dogma" was a good concept with a lazy execution, and I'm sorry to hear this doesn't sound any better. I was a little surprised by that parenthetical near the end though. IMHO "Clerks II" his worst (which is a feat, considering that includes "Mallrats") and one of the worst I've ever seen.

Anyway, never commented before so I'll just say, despite "Clerks II," I'm a big fan of the blog.

Scott Mendelson said...

Clerks II and Dogma are my favorite Kevin Smith films, and give-or-take Red State, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is my least favorite (it pertains to be a smart, inside-baseball entertainment satire, but does the same lazy jokes everyone else does). As for Clerks II, I'll just paste what I wrote about it in my year-end 2006 review:

"Don’t laugh, this is some ways was one of the most potent movies of the year. At the end of a summer filled with misfires (DaVinci Code Code, X-Men 3, Lady In The Water, Mission Impossible 3), here was a film that was much, much better than expected. Kevin Smith returns to the world that made him a power player, yet the world is a soberer, more grown-up one. Smith is now an actual adult and his characters are struggling to become adults too, as they take stock in their squandered youth and try to find substance in their 30s that they so carefully avoided in their 20s. In the end, it’s a rallying-cry against the obsessive societal demand that every person live the same kind of life, but rather the life that makes him or her happiest. The climactic dialogue scene between our Dante and Randal is one of the best-written scenes of the year, and could become a staple in acting classes for years to come. Following a minor post-Dogma slump, this is easily Smith’s best film yet."

Come what may, I appreciate the kind words and hope you continue to comment.

Dennis Jernberg said...

So from what I'm hearing, about the choppy filmmaking and Smith's inability to cut and the villain derailment... Syd Field would definitely not be impressed. My jaw dropped just reading your descriptions of his errors, as I thought Smith should be a better director than that. But apparently he fails exactly where, say, Michael Moore succeeds, or would if he directed political thrillers. Specifically, he fails *at* political thrillers -- unless he can prove to us otherwise...

(Me, I first learned how to write from Syd Field's books, including his dictum "Get in [the scene] late, get out early.")

Chris said...

Sad to read this about Red State as I haven't had a chance to see it and I am a big Kevin Smith fan (seen every other one of his films). I also agree Clerks II was his best movie in quite some time, though I will always love Chasing Amy and Dogma.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was also truly terrible, a nonsensical pile of crap masquerading as fan service.

Brandon said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. This movie was a massive disappointment.

I get this feeling that Kevin Smith was watching "No Country For Old Men" when he was penning the final scene of the movie.

Tom Clift said...

I get the complaints a lot of people have with the film, but I ended up loving Red State. It's an absolute mess, full of exposition and confused messages. But I found there was such a visceral, brutal, angry quality to the movie, in both its cinematography & editing (you can't deny that it's Smith's most visually dynamic film) and in the less that subtle way that Smith outlines his feelings on church and state. It's got giant problems to be sure, but it really gripped me as I was watching it, and I ended up thinking about it a lot once it was finished.

One area where I don't think you give Smith quite enough credit is in regard to his making the government the bad-guys. I think the epilogue demonstrates that he's not so much against religion/fundamentalist religion, as he is against people forcing their beliefs on others. The two government agents decide that because they personally don't agree with the behaviour of Cooper's church, it's ok to overlook their civil & human rights. Just something worth considering I guess.

Butherus said...

"In also making the government into the bad guy, Smith does nothing less than neuter whatever issues he wants to discuss regarding the dangers of such religious sects."

I guess I didn't see the theme as a simple church vs state relationship, but rather as a more complex double pronged critique of conservative thinking. Smith basically pits extreme right-wing religious nuts against extreme right-wing, militarily aggressive (never apologize, never negotiate) government nuts. He basically sets up a battle between two aspects of "red state" mentality. Almost every adult in the movie is a hyperbolic representation of right-wing ideology. And caught in the middle are the (relatively) innocent children (aka the future). The only representation of liberal thought in the movie remains off camera. I'm referring to the the hippies (a generic symbol of progressive thought) and their "music," which is in itself a form of nonviolent protest. Smith is commenting on the effects of unchecked hate and absolutism (both of which are done under the guise of liberty). I think if you are detecting confusing messages or conflicting ideas, that that is on purpose. Smith is suggesting the right wing way of thinking is inherently conflicted, and I think his movie does a solid job presenting that concept.


Related Posts with Thumbnails