Review: ‘Red State’

By  · Published on October 21st, 2011

By now everyone knows that after his upcoming two-part hockey flick Hit Somebody, Kevin Smith is done making movies. If Red State is any indication, the time’s right for his exit.

Smith’s Westboro Baptist Church-inspired horror-thriller has been making headlines since his ill-fated fake auction following January’s Sundance premiere. He’s taken it on the road, showing it to packed houses across North America. It played a week at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. The filmmaker’s tweeted about it incessantly. Now, it’s on DVD.

And it’s still really, really bad, a simplistic, poorly-constructed exercise in low-rent genre moviemaking. It’s as if Smith made the movie just so he could promote it. Horny Midwestern teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun) sneak away one school night to have sex with an older woman they’ve met online. Turns out the woman, Sara (Melissa Leo), is the daughter of the psychotic fringe preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and Abin really, really doesn’t like fornicating.

He hates it so much, in fact, that he has the boys drugged, tied up, and housed in an animal cage (Gallner) and a dungeon below his church (Angarano and Braun). After some fiery sermonizing, brutal executions are planned.

The movie has one great thing going for it: Parks, who’s an electric presence, oozing charisma as he spouts pseudo-biblical nonsense. The actor doesn’t exactly rally you to Cooper’s evil cause, but there’s a precision to his performance, a rhythm to his craziness that’s appealing in a Hannibal Lecter/Harry Powell sort of way.

Beyond Parks, this is an amateurish enterprise without an iota of suspense or an inkling of purpose. Smith has frequently admitted that he has no idea how to properly stage a shot, but his visual failures have never been more apparent than they are here. His frame is frequently cluttered with immobile characters, the action scenes offer torpid back-and-forth exchanges of machine gun blasts and the few non-cut-and-paste stylistic decisions backfire spectacularly.

The characters (again, other than Parks) are brain-dead one-dimensional bores. The teens are stereotypically sex-obsessed louts and you’re largely immune to their suffering. Smith undoubtedly told Leo to overact but she so overdoes the glassy-eyed fanatic thing that her Sara seems less like a human than a crazed homicidal robot. The narrative abandons them all early on, as the picture becomes one-part sermon and one-part shootout, with nary a convincing or meaningful personal detail to be found.

Smith is a talented writer and an adept chronicler of a particular strand of suspended adolescence (basically, the New Jersey type). He’s also one of the most publicly self-aware individuals working in Hollywood, so he knows his own limitations. The desire to do something drastically different is an understandable one, but it’s surprising that he thought he could pull off Red State. He’s out of his depth and his movie – which aims to be scary and suspenseful, but is neither – is mostly unwatchable.

The Upside: Two words: Michael Parks.

The Downside: Two words: Everything Else.

On the Side: I genuinely like Kevin Smith and appreciate his contributions to cinema. Thus, I look forward to forgetting this film ever existed.

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