Saturday, December 3, 2011

Red State

It has been a long, long time since I have watched a Kevin Smith movie.  I've never been  big fan of Clerks, but I enjoyed the juvenile humor in Mallrats and the ham-fisted Dogma the first time I saw them.  Unfortunately, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was one of the most painful film experiences I have ever endured; thanks to all the winking and nudging, it is the only comedy to make my Most Hated Movie list.  Since then, I have steered clear of Smith's films.  Red State intrigued me, though.  Kevin Smith, a one-time master of filthy and stupid-funny dialogue, writing and directing a horror movie?  There is potential in that premise, assuming that Smith maintains his juvenile sense of humor and makes a solid slasher flick with plenty of smart-ass dialogue.  But you know what they say about assumptions...

Red State begins with three friends --- Jarod (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Barn) --- of roughly college age scheming to get laid.  Okay, here are our naughty teens; the horror movie is underway.
And yes, Billy-Ray's name is just an excuse for a mullet
Jarod has been frequenting a website that specializes in connecting locals for relationship-free sex; in fact, the "woman" (because, after all, it is the internet) doesn't want to have sex with just Jarod --- she wants him to bring two friends along for some simultaneous loving.  Sure, that's a little unusual, but men are simple and the trio takes the request at face value.  On their way to the sexing, the trio accidentally sideswipes a parked car to introduce a subplot that never really pays off.
Direct quote: "Hamina, hamina, hamina...!"
Instead of seeing the accident as a bad omen --- or leaving a note, exchanging insurance information, or even trying the State Farm jingle to get one of their insurance genies to pop up --- the three youngsters continue on their journey to satisfy their lusty flesh.  The good news is that they find the woman, and she is really a woman named Sara (Melissa Leo).  The bad news is that she is a little older than the boys were expecting.
The really bad news is that Sara drugs them and they wake up as captives of the extreme Five Points Church.  Huh?

You see, in the background of that story, viewers learned about the local murder of a young homosexual in town, and we see his funeral being picketed by members of the Five Points Church, which is a none-too-subtle analogue for the Westboro Baptist Church.  As you might surmise from the fact that they picketed a funeral, Five Pointers are not a sect known for their calm demeanor or reasonable actions.  As such, our three horny teens have been held captive so they may be executed in God's name for sinning against him.  What follows is an intense look at the rhetoric of American hate groups and the tension that comes from waiting for your own execution.
Ball gags: rarely a good sign
No, not really.  The ATF is eventually contacted, surrounds the house, and royally screws up, a la Waco.  And that, more or less, leads to the end.

Red State is not a typical horror movie, even if it starts out like your average slasher flick.  What could have been a decently effective premise --- teens up to no good are captured and need to escape --- quickly turns into a showcase for Kevin Smith to show how crazy extreme religious people are.  Smith doesn't add anything clever or interesting to the larger argument here, and I seriously doubt that anyone who watches this film will on the side of the hate group.  Even with Smith's heavy-handed diatribe, this could have been an effective horror movie.  Unfortunately, Smith adds a further twist by introducing a firefight between the church group and the ATF.  So...there goes the horror element.  Furthermore, the focus of the story shifts to ATF Agent Keenan (John Goodman), who is heading the operation.  Is his mission to save the three kidnapped boys?  Actually, he isn't even aware of them.  What the hell is this movie supposed to be about, then?

That's my biggest problem with Red State.  The plot is just a mess.  Smith over-complicates things, includes uninteresting subplots and can't focus on a main character or theme.  There are only a few moments where his trademark humor shows up, and the quips are obvious and not very funny.  I was surprised to see how poorly plotted, paced, and edited Red State was.  This is his tenth feature film as a director, and his ninth as a writer --- how could this film's direction be so horribly inept?  My only explanation is that this is Smith's first venture outside of the comedy genre and, without the crutch of dick jokes, his shortcomings as a director are exposed here.
And here, he displays his shortcoming for context-driven humor

Most of the acting in the film is decent, if uninspired.  John Goodman is certainly likable as an ATF agent, but his character's motivations are poorly explained and quickly discarded without any conflict.
To shoot or not to shoot: never mind, there are no consequences
Of the three sex-crazed boys, only Kyle Gallner has the opportunity to act, and I wasn't terribly impressed with his bored display of suicidal tendencies.  Kerry Bishe was definitely the best actor amongst the churchgoers,but her role was also the most over-dramatic.  I was disappointed in Melissa Leo's over-the-top performance as a zealot.
I was, however, very impressed with Michael Parks as the creepy/evil preacher.  While his character was never written with the intention of being convincing, Parks took a horrible villain and added some much-needed charisma, making this nutcase seem plausible, like a modern-day Charles Manson.
Add a self-carved forehead swastika, and you're there
There are also a number of recognizable bit players in the film; Kevin Pollack, Patrick Fischler, and Stephen Root all contribute next to nothing to this film.

There is a solid premise behind this film, but the story loses its way far too early.  I hate the fact that you never know who the main characters are.  Failing that, I should at least be able to clearly identify what the main conflict in the movie will be, but that is left as a second-act surprise.  I despise Smith's straw man arguments against organized religion, and I felt that this was another none-too-clever attack on a subject that demands attention and pondering.  To put it bluntly, Red State handles religious extremism with even less thought than Dogma
On your knees and repent!
Worse than the heavy-handedness of the religious story was the total incompetence of Kevin Smith as a director.  This movie wasn't funny, scary, or effectively action-packed.  It has elements of all three genres, but they do not gel together because they are rarely present within the same scene, much less the same film reel.  Personally, I think Kevin Smith is a genuinely entertaining man.  Even if I had never found one of his jokes funny, I would have to admit that he is a talented storyteller, if only because of his Prince anecdote.  Unfortunately, he is not much of a writer or director.  I would love to see Smith bounce back from this with a heartfelt story of his dramatic weight loss or something vaguely realistic, because his strength comes from the way he describes the ordinary.  Red State has him working outside of his comfort zone and the result is half-baked, at best, and truly dull at worst.

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