Friday, September 2, 2011

Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)

Kevin Smith's Red State indirectly posits a future where "ripped-from-the-blogopshere" becomes the new method of stabbing at relevance. Its unfocused narrative, contradictory thematic thrusts and strawmen fallacies play like an unresearched screed against, well, everything within reach. The man whose command of Catholic teachings gave Dogma its depth here presents...I'm not even sure, to be honest. The fitful narrative spurts in and out of topics: occasionally, it goes after dumb, horny teenage boys, then to Christian Extremists In No Way Related to the Phelps Family (lawsuit-avoiding clarification included) and finally to the lethally inane bureaucracy of law enforcement.

Smith seems to want to make a hyperkinetic Coen brothers film, but he has made the same mistake of so many detractors in assuming that every character in a Coens' movie is loathsome. There's no one to latch onto with this film, which already whiplashes so much it could use an identifiable center. Smith, who has made some of the most tangible characters in modern comedy, crafts props who spit out his lines with either listlessness or overacting bathos the one time he really needs great delivery to maintain suspense with words. So thin are these characters that, amazingly, the most inherently likable one turns out to be the homphobic preacher sitting on top of a small arsenal.

That preacher is Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks with such vicious elegance it takes time to realize he really isn't saying or doing anything at all. His Cooper comes off a great deal more human than Fred Phelps—he's seen as tender with his grandchildren compared to documentary footage of the cold WBC leader, and he even has a spry spring in his step. But then, sometimes reality is just too strange for fiction. His daughter (Melissa Leo, who has officially crossed the threshold from big, bold acting into scenery mastication) uses a fake online listing to lure three repressed boys looking for a gangbang, only to plunge them into a nightmare world of religious fervor. But first you've got to sit through talk. And talk. And more damn talk.

Obviously, this could be expected of that most talky of writer-directors, but Smith isn't simply riffing here. He needs to build and maintain suspense with his language, much the same way Quentin Tarantino drew out tension like shrieking violin glissandi in Inglourious Basterds with nothing but ingeniously structured dialogue. Well, and a formal mastery of editing, which stands nearly at a polar opposite from the haphazard guesswork of Red State's assembly. Smith's work in comedy has honed his ability at editing down whole cuts to ensure the tightest movement to the punchline. But trimming scenes and true editing are entirely different things, and as his (inexplicably) hand-held camera careens around angles and jittery coverage, the obliteration of spatial-temporal clarity creates a distraction that further robs the stiff dialogue from impact. This is a horror film mercifully without cheap scares, but its construction prevents atmosphere from condensing around its characters.

Also hurting the film are its wild tonal and narrative shifts, which if nothing else prove that the Coens' anticlimaxes are fare more clever and assuredly handled than many credit them. But where an unexpected occurrence can completely change not merely the direction of, say, A Serious Man or No Country for Old Men, thematic, even intellectual depth grows out of the voids left by early resolutions and protracted falling actions. Red State's gear shifts feel not like pullbacks to the bigger picture but "Oh, and another thing!" returns to a conversation that you just want to end. The sudden turn from fundamentalist Christianity to a bungled ATF operation reminiscent of Waco tries to expand the scope of criticism to include grim responses to such sects, but for this aspect to work one must consider the murderous cult to be misunderstood in some way. In the end, it all just feels like a senseless bloodbath to lead to incoherent, meaningless action scenes.

Smith amassed a solid collection of exceedingly gifted character actors, but their lengthy monologues feel only like extended cameos in films where they're being given more prominent roles. Parks and Leo are supplemented by Stephen Root, John Goodman and Kevin Pollak (whose blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance elevates the film almost as much as his turn in Cop Out), all of whom are clearly game for something meaty but wind up rushing to deliver their lines before the camera moves away again. The younger cast isn't bad either, from Veronica Mars' Kyle Gallner to Michael Angarano. Had the script any more focus, this may well have been the demented actor's showcase it thinks it is.

Unfortunately, it feels mainly like everyone is wasting his time. I kept waiting, and then hoping, that some element would fall into place, that the scattered plots and dry humor would anchor themselves to something, anything, and work. But by the time Red State stumbles to its ending—which for one brief moment seems as if it might redeem the entire picture with its bravery, only to opt for a Burn After Reading-wannabe non-resolution that instead feels like a cop out—it's joined church and state more messily and simplistically than any fundamentalist ever could.


  1. Excellent, excellent review, the best I've seen so far. Nail; head; hit.

  2. Really great review, although I disagree pretty strongly. I really liked - borderline loved - RED STATE, although I will concede that a lot of it is a mess.

    What I think is so strong about it is how visceral and angry it feels. Smith is clearly has strong opinions about people who uses their personal beliefs as justification to judge others - both in Church and in State. The tonal shifts are very jarring, but they just made me even more tense and on edge, never sure when the next character was going to die.

    I will agree that in some ways he copped out on the ending. While I really liked the Burn After Reading-esque epilogue, the place where you THINK Smith was going...that would have been really ballsy.

  3. Colin: Thanks!

    Tom: I've since read that Smith actually said his original ending was the ballsy one. I don't know why he changed it, other than he thought it would be funny. But the Burn After Reading ending only works for pure farce. The Coens created an insular world where the rules only served to show how there were no rules: Smith clearly has a message here, but he can't articulate it. He does such a piss-poor job of fashioning this world and motivations beyond two-dimensional motives that the slaughter has no weight. And this is the same guy who made rounded humans out of the slacker archetype, to the point that I truly love a good three or four of his films. But the visceral quality here gains no traction because its anger has no focal point. I actually have even less regard a month removed from the film than I did at the time.

  4. I'd agree that there's not much depth to the characters, but I'd argue that the slaughter has dramatic weight on shock-factor alone (which I think is a legitimate technique as long as it REMAINS shocking, which it does).

    I would also argue that while the anger is sort of sprayed everywhere, it still worked for me. Firstly because of how intense it felt, and secondly because, seeing as how the film is at least partially a satire/farce, the broad nature of the targets and somewhat cartoonish depiction of both Church and State didn't really bother me