Review: ‘Red State’

Full of controversial subjects and interesting characters, it’s the story that ultimately fails.

Travis (Michael Angarano) is a typical small town teen looking for an anonymous hookup. Responding to an online solicitation along with his friends, his lucky break turns out to be a nightmare. This leads to an encounter with Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the Five Points Church leader who has been protesting with his followers at the funerals of homosexuals. Unfortunately for the teens, the church doesn’t limit their righteous wrath to righting the wrongs of just one kind of sinner. Meanwhile, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) has been investigating the group and gets called in on a tip, and the collision of events centered at the church compound may be heading for a conclusion of Biblical proportions.

There is much good that can be said about Kevin Smith’s Red State. The cast is first rate and acting is superb, the film looks great for one shot on a very light budget, and the subject matter is controversial and interesting. Sadly, none of this comes together because the story is simply a mess. With little warning, the script introduces characters and switches between points of view with no regard for a main antagonist or protagonist, a marathon of main characters that hands off the point of view like a baton whenever the filmmaker likes. The subjects of controversy are introduced but never actually dealt with, as though the point of the film is that none of it really matters. The ending feels more like an epilogue rather than a climax, providing neither payoff nor consequence. Did Kevin Smith really set out to make a bad Coen Brother’s movie?

With his View Askew collection of films, Kevin Smith has proven he can entertain audiences and provide likeable characters in interesting situations. Red State, however, was billed to be as much of a departure from Smith’s earlier work as Jersey Girl (which was pretty decent once they killed off J-Lo, one of the film’s highlights). Reportedly self-described by Smith as his first horror film, the movie seems to exist to create controversy through shock value, gleefully roaming from viewpoint to viewpoint so he can kill off whomever he likes, whenever he likes, seemingly to maximize the surprise of it. Unfortunately, this has the counter effect of making the story hard to follow and providing little in a way keeping interest in the plights of any of these characters. Also, this isn’t a horror film by any measurable means except by people who don’t watch them.

The set-up-and-abandon thing happens throughout the film, introducing familiar plot devices that Smith simply discards with a bullet rather than do anything original. Were audiences supposed to view the film as a spoof or commentary on gun-cult thrillers themselves? With a running time of under ninety minutes, the character of Abin Cooper is permitted a lengthy chunk of the film for his uncut, sadistic sermon, while the film’s conclusion happens off stage, merely described by surviving characters (a question and answer period follows). This breaks one of the cardinal sins of storytelling (show, don’t tell) but offers no valid reason that it was necessary to do so. Worse yet, just as something happens that might have redeemed many of the story’s flaws, Smith again abandons it with throwaway dialog. If the narrative was intentionally re-purposed by Smith to permit viewers to make up their own minds about what they just saw, why would he also omit any reason for his audience to care?

(a one and a half recommendation out of four)

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