Red State (2011, Smith)
Trying out something new, on some level, is always worthwhile. In filmmaking, when we come to expect one type of movie from a director, it can pigeonhole them. In the case of Kevin Smith, whose affair with public speaking tends to get more press these days than his films, he has carved out a foul-mouthed slacker niche that has invariably worked through the present. His new film Red State is a serious foray into horror. That he tries something new does not go unnoticed; if only the film were any good.
The big problem with Red State is that it feels like a fuzzy manifestation of one of Smith’s rants. His conceit has potential; some of the religious extremism that exists in this country is downright shudder-inducing and disturbing. But to throw his views onto the screen in the form of broad caricatures with no inkling of thoughtful execution is too reductive to be either scary or meaningful. As seemingly lazy as these portraits get, he throws in a ten-minute monologue that brings the film to a halt, destroys any sense of suspense and is painful in the sense that Smith clearly sees this as being a show-stopping moment. No; it is just uninterrupted pontificating.
As the film starts, three teenagers find themselves in a lethal situation when their quest to simultaneously have sex with a woman leads them into a trap set by religious extremists.
We endure misfire after misfire as we work our way through the challenge of caring an ounce about the three teenagers in turmoil. Then Red State switches gears entirely and becomes a siege film in its last third. These drastic shifts in genre could have worked had any of its purported conviction materialized into anything lucid. Instead, it just feels like several different films and none of them are noteworthy. None of the characters stick, even Abin Cooper, the Fred Phelps inspired villain played by Michael Parks. Parks makes what he can of the character, but what should be a juicy role is undercut by Smith’s misuse of the character’s onscreen time. Melissa Leo overacts in a one-note performance while John Goodman is a pleasure to watch but this is entirely because he is John Goodman.
The last few minutes really shine some light on the film’s potential, making me wish Smith had regrouped and reconstructed the film as a pitch black satire. These moments late in the film do not feel earned; they feel like cheap shots. If the film had more of a backbone to its rage, it would have meant something.
Smith does a notable job in making the film feel and look scummy; it is present but not overdone and has its invisible effect on those watching. He also plays around a lot with expectations involving character deaths which give the film an air of unpredictable vim. And to make it clear, the general idea that Smith has here had potential; he has every right to fume about the issues at hand. What is unfortunate is that he was unable to take that ever-present anger that he always instills in his films through comedy, and do that with horror. The ambition is appreciated but this one is a non-starter.