As Kevin Smith reaches middle age, he apparently wants to be taken more seriously as an artist. Smith has already built up an impressive career as the drinking buddy at the sports bar for Generation X. He’s smart, interesting, and knows how to talk to his audiences. But then he abandoned his “View Askewniverse” to try his hand at more mainstream films. First, there was Zack and Miri which was a reflection of his origins, then there was Cop Out, which was brutalized by other critics (I have not seen the film). But Smith has also become defensive, saying that critics should pay to see his films and then not give it a bad review (although his comparison of critics who hated Cop Out to bullies “making fun of the retarded kid” says a lot more about how he viewed his own film).
So, where does Red State fall into that? Well, it is a dramatically different film than anything Smith’s done, and it’s his attempt at showing how he can tackle serious themes. For that, I do respect him. Anyone who is willing to shock their audiences and give them some sort of “high-fallootin” art deserves to have his film treated seriously. But there are two problems with his approach. The first is that he picks a far too easy target that cannot be satirized (The Westboro Baptist Church already satirizes itself with its bizarre activities) and he does not know how to take a stand. Smith attempts to point out the problems on both sides of the conflict. But he does not manage to do it well.
The plot is essentially a fictional retelling of the Waco raid and the Westboro Baptist Church protests. Also, various plots from 1970s Wes Craven films are thrown in for good measure. Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) leads the Five Points Church and protests at the funerals of slain homosexuals. However, the church also takes a very direct approach in the way they punish people they view as “sinners.” Three high school friends are sent an invitation for group sex from an anonymous local woman. They go and meet Sarah (Melissa Leo) who kidnaps them and brings them into the church. The boys try to escape, while sheriff Wyann (Stephen Root) and ATF agent Keenan (John Goodman) try to get in after another deputy is murdered and military grade weapons are discovered on the premises.
Now, the first act (when the boys are talking about the sex they will have) could be easily transplanted into an early “Askewniverse” film, but it threatens to destroy the current one before it even begins. These kids are awful characters for this universe, who think that maturity is swearing with every alternate word. I guess Smith was not ready to completely abandon his past, but these characters are not even endearing. Considering this is meant to be a horror film and we are supposed to empathize with them, the film is not off to a good start. Besides, the actions of the Church in this act are not particularly funny. They seem more like a documentary on what Westboro actually does. Smith could not find a focus on that first act and it became painful to watch those kids.
It picks up when the ATF arrives, but then, Smith makes another mistake. He uses the opportunity to make broad statements about both and imply that the U.S. government directly kills people in such situations. Agents are even shown gunning down unarmed civilians. Now, I am not here to speculate that accuracy of that statement. But I am here to say it does not work in this context. The creators of South Park make the same sort of broad comic strokes in their show. But their worlds are meant to be buffoonish and light. It helps that they’re cartoonists. Red State is meant to be gritty, disturbing, and realistic. Making such broad comic strokes and refusing to let the situation speak for itself does a considerable amount of damage to whatever point Smith is trying to make.
So, is there anything good about the film? Actually, yes. Parks’ performance as the Phelps like head of the church is strangely hypnotic. The camera work is inventive (the digital look helps) and I do admire the fact that Smith even tried to tackle the themes he tackles here. Most filmmakers do not want to confront these radical people directly. Smith takes them to their logical conclusion and makes what they do even more horrifying. It became easy to picture Phelps kidnapping and murdering homosexuals (although, to my knowledge, they have never done so). In those moments, Red State finds its purpose and becomes a damning indictment of fanaticism.
I admire Kevin Smith for trying to break out of his usual habit. Red State is a deeply flawed film, but for his career, it was an important one. Besides, it does manage to have an entertaining and poignant second act. Ultimately, though, if I may go back to the sports bar analogy, Smith is at the time where he needs to take a break. When the game starts, your drinking buddy may be the best person to be around. But after a few pitchers, he starts to become sluggish and maybe a touch unfocused. He may still have some insightful comments and think of new things to say, but he may not be able to communicate his thoughts as well. It’s better at that point to call it a night and let him sober up. The next time, he may have something new to bring to the table. You can guess where Red State is in that tortured analogy.