The Good: Truly horrifying, Good acting
The Bad: Gruesome plot, Utterly unlikable characters, Lack of spark
The Basics: Kevin Smith might well educate some viewers as to the horrible nature of the world with Red State, but he sure isn’t entertaining his fans!
Coming into the autumn film season, there was only one movie I was actually excited about seeing in the theaters. Okay, there were two, but I wanted to see Breaking Dawn (reviewed here) mostly because of my wife’s interest in it. I had been very excited about Kevin Smith’s new movie Red State. Red State promised a level of controversy in its subject matter that appealed to me. And, I failed to believe that if Kevin Smith wrote and directed Red State, it could truly be a horror film the way it was billed.
Thank you, as ever, Kevin Smith, for proving me wrong.
Kevin Smith has created a legitimate theological horror film with Red State. Far from being anything like a sequel to Dogma, Red State shifts from uncomfortable to utterly gruesome. The movie lacks his trademark spark and while the acting is good, the film is not. Smith’s Red State suffers because it is utterly devoid of entertainment value. Kevin Smith has, essentially, made a horrific documentary on the world as it exists. While the names have been changed, Smith clearly culls character ideas and incidents from some of the most troublesome, real, events.
What quality there is in Red State does not negate the fact that the film is utterly unwatchable.
Travis is on his way to school one morning when he notices a funeral being boycotted by the members of the reactionary Five Points Church. The hatemongers have anti-gay signs and are making the family of the slain gay child exceptionally uncomfortable. Travis arrives at school and during lunch, he talks with his friends Jared and Billy Ray about the three of them going to Cooper’s Dell for sex with a woman they found on the Internet. On the way, they sideswipe the car of the local sheriff they flee the scene. But when they get to the trailer and meet the woman they are supposed to have sex with, things quickly take a turn for the horrible.
The three boys are drugged with the beer from the woman and Jared wakes up in a cage. After a gruesome, anti-gay sermon by Abin Cooper, Jared witnesses the Cooper family members kill a gay man they captured. The dead body is dropped into a pit that contains Travis and Billy Ray. When the Coopers come to kill Jared, his life is temporarily saved by the arrival of the sheriff’s deputy. When Billy Ray escapes, a shootout ensues, which leads to a standoff with the ATF. As Jared and Travis struggle to survive, Abin Cooper and Joseph Keenan play through a dangerous negotiation.
Red State takes the viewer from territory where they are unsettled into outright disgusted and to his credit, Kevin Smith does that remarkably well. As one who has loved almost every work Kevin Smith has released as a writer-director, it is reassuring to know that he has such a wealth of talent. As a writer and director, Kevin Smith could have released Red State anonymously and one suspects no one would have ever suspected it was one of his films. The movie is that different from anything he has ever done.
Unfortunately, it is not at all worth recommending as a result. Smith proves that he can completely dump comedy and present a movie that is dark, gritty and in every way horrific. That does not, unfortunately, make it any good.
The problems with Red State are many, but without getting into the horror nature of the film, the biggest problems come in the form of the characters. The three boys are alternately the dumbest and most resourceful youth in contemporary cinema. Not one of them questions the existence of a sexually adventurous woman right on the doorstep of the Five Points Church nor do they question when all Sarah wants them to do upon their arrival is drink some beers. This is the archetypal horror movie set up! How are these kids so stupid as to not recognize that?! Conversely, when the body is thrown into the trapdoor, Travis is resourceful enough to use a protruding bone from the corpse to try to tear the plastic wrap that has him trapped! Moreover, when Cheyenne begs Jared to save the Cooper children, the film gets one of its few cathartic moments when Jared refuses.
The mess that follows is just that. Smith turns the already gruesome torture movie into a hostage situation filled characters who are so motivated by their own political machinations as to make the bloody sequences that follow virtually impossible to untangle.
That said, what Red State has going for it is the acting. Kyle Gallner is impressive as Jared, not at all resembling his character from Veronica Mars (reviewed here!). His costar, Michael Angarano, does an impressive job as Travis, making the young man seem resourceful enough to be watchable. John Goodman and Melissa Leo bring their usual a-games to Red State as well. Goodman is entirely believable as Keenan. As Keenan, Goodman presents a depth and development that takes an initially unlikable character and makes him the one we root for. Stephen Root gives another memorable supporting performance as the Sheriff manipulated by Cooper.
It is Michael Parks who steals the show for Red State. Parks plays Abin Cooper and he is utterly terrifying in the role. There is not a single frame he is on screen where it does not seem like he is a bigoted, hate-filled manipulator out to destroy those he loathes (namely gay people). Parks is a chilling villain and I have to hope that it is all a performance.
The enduring problem with Red State is that Kevin Smith creates an utterly charmless and unfantastical horror film. There are Abin Coopers in the world and making a strongly dramatic horror movie about them is almost pointless. Because the film lacks any of the characteristic wit, charm or satire of Smith’s other works, the movie feels like he is reinventing himself, as opposed to asking his loyal fans to come along.
Sorry, Mr. Smith; I’m not much of a fan of horror and I still have P.T. Anderson’s works for this level of high drama (and his characters make sense!). Let me know when you return to comedy or you branch out into something watchable!
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© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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