Red State may be best summed up as the type of movie made by the type of person who watches lots of movies. I’m willing to argue the point; Kevin Smith clearly has something specific on his mind that in point of fact does not refer back to movies at all, but rather the sobering realities of a country in which hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church reside. But despite being topical in concept, Red State never feels so in execution. Smith doesn’t breathe life into his own vision and deliver a scathing indictment against such organizations because, put simply, he has no clue how to operate in the confines of the genre he’s chosen to deliver his narrative, revolving around three horny teenage boys lured into a trap by the fanatical and dangerous Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his congregation of fundamentalist hate-mongers.
So in the end, intentions aside, Red State just feels like a horror movie made by someone who researched his project by watching other horror movies. Red State rarely, if ever, feels alive; it’s a victim of Smith’s own insecurities and uncertainty. When a character dies here, it’s because Smith understands depictions of human suffering and expiration to be the overt expectations of horror films, not because that character needed to die for any dramatic reason. He’s seen other directors kill off their characters in spectacularly bloody fashion; therefore, he understands that he’s supposed to the same thing with his own cast. Amidst gunfire and bloodshed it becomes logical to contend that Smith doesn’t have much use for any characters in the film save for the aforementioned Cooper and Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), which might be fair enough as they’re the two most gifted actors here and both make a meal out of their roles and become thoroughly watchable in a mostly useless movie.
Partly Red State‘s woes stems from a messy and nonsensical structure, which is so hodgepodge as to give the impression that the film has been sutured together from no fewer than three different, unrelated pictures. In particular, the film’s set-up feels completely inorganic and forced and probably best highlights the dearth of thought Smith put into his story; there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the way Red State kicks off, per se, but if a director chooses three randy teens as the audience surrogates in a movie about violent religious fundamentalism, they should be cared for and treated as actual characters. Frankly, the boys are a weak and needless excuse for Smith to get us inside of Pastor Cooper’s compound (where he sermonizes on his belief in the end of times and rants about the evils of homosexuality), which is where the erstwhile Clerks director really wants us to be in the first place.
If that’s Smith’s goal, well and good. Cooper, as played by Parks, is shamefully mesmerizing, a character so thoroughly abominable that we feel bad for finding his scenes even remotely captivating; the faster we meet him the better. But the boys still represent laziness and bad footing on Smith’s part, particularly once Goodman’s ATF agent is introduced and the film quickly, recklessly, sloppily morphs from a torture-porn exploitation flick into a siege movie. Once Keenan appears, the teenagers become obsolete; Smith cruelly ignores them, and their presence in Red State‘s overarching plot becomes mind-boggling as they’re revealed to only serve a purpose of function and utility. Why did the kids need to be in the movie at all? As Stephen Spinella might tell you, they’re just no-reasons, as Smith clearly intends for Keenan and Cooper to play the role of the film’s nemeses.
When Red State‘s cards are all on the table, Smith’s approach to his narrative and plot proves dubious at best and his intentions grow completely clear. He’s not making a movie. He’s making a statement. Political and social commentary go together with art splendidly; Smith’s sin isn’t one of having an opinion. But he’s clearly making a movie solely to make a statement before he tells a story, instead of telling a story that makes a statement. I’m one hundred percent with Smith on the subject matter, but his film feels less like a narrative and more like furious propaganda. While I’m not sympathetic to his targets whatsoever, he could have mined a good syarn tory out of this conceit if he had any interest in carefully crafting his plot and fostering a sense of build-up to the picture’s violent shoot-out. Instead, things simply happen, and the conflict is presented with such matter-of-fact and almost callous bluntness that it’s rendered ineffectual before being wrapped up too neatly and with too much unearned victory.
As the end credits started to roll, I had one major question of Smith’s movie: what movie were you trying to make? Red State feels very much like the product of an ADD-affected mind, a film whose initial premise its director grew tired of and consciously abandoned a quarter of the way through. That capricious sensibility hamstrings plot and, if not for the high talents of Goodman and Parks, presented a threat to the film’s development of characters meant to anchor us in Smith’s narrative. Mercifully, the movie embraces brevity, but by that very token Red State also suffers– indeed, more time may have been nothing but a boon to Smith’s storytelling, yielding a greater window in which to let the film’s elements simmer and come together with gratifying cohesion. As it is, this is a real mess, and not even the interesting kind that’s worth remembering or talking about.