Today I finally saw Kevin Smith’s foray into the land of horror, Red State.
I should back up a bit. In order to understand my review and feelings, it’s important to understand where I come from.
I was a huge Kevin Smith fan. From the time I saw Clerks and Mallrats the same weekend, I was hooked. I saw absolutely everything the man put out- even the ridiculously dopey travel segments on the Tonight Show (hosted by The Chin). This guy was connecting with his audience in a way that no director had before. I dare say he was the first director/writer to really embrace the internet and use it to his advantage. He regularly talked with fans on the message board, he felt like a friend that made movies.
But over the years, something happened. Hollywood started growing colder towards Smith’s unrefined style, expecting him to grow and stretch as a filmmaker. His movies had been fun, but as his audience grew up- Smith didn’t. And it seemed he got more and more defensive about criticism towards his work.
If you weren’t drinking the Kool-aid you were the enemy. Especially on the internet.
Being that Smith staked his claim on the internet early on, and grew much of his audience there; it only makes sense that he would be hurt when it turned against him. But rather than engage, like he did as a young filmmaker; Smith just went into attack mode; causing more and more dissent towards him.
Smith began to change his overall attitude, losing the appearance of the everyman geek that had endeared him to his fans and taking on an attitude of defensive entitlement.
The self proclaimed “media whore” brought his new attitude front and center at the outset of promoting Red State. Smith made his disdain clear early on, refusing to release any details or promotional info to press. He even went so far as to charge to release the teaser posters. Yes the money went to charity, but this wasn’t born out of a noble spirit. It was born out of disdain for the press.
Smith wasn’t even releasing teasers or trailers until much later, in some childish way, attempting to punish the press.
Yes, I said childish. Because that is what his attitude has become. While I do blame fans that forced him to stick to a formula and demanded Jay and Silent Bob in every movie; I blame him for not saying “No.”. No one hated Kevin Smith, whether he believed it or not; people wanted him to win. He was the underdog; the chubby comic book nerd who loved movies and wanted to make his own. Just like so many of us.
With this animosity between Smith and the press, Red State was bound to suffer. If not for the curiosity of Kevin Smith doing a horror film, it would have none at all. So, quietly, Red State found its way to VOD this weekend. Giving audiences a chance to finally see the film for themselves, and see if it stood on its own; outside of the controversy.
It does not.
Red State is an uneven film that tries to deliver an ambiguous message, but fails in the hands of a director out of his league. With stilted writing and chock full of monologues; Red State becomes a chore to watch.
And, let’s be clear- Red State isn’t a horror film. It could have been. It certainly sets itself up to be a horror movie. With three friends in search of sex, traveling to a nearby town for an internet hookup and then being abducted by the Phelps-like Cooper clan; held at their mercy and made to pay for their sins.
Could have been a decent set up, at the very least Smith could have run the bases with it. Instead it quickly dissolves into tv-movie territory ala The Waco Standoff.
Gone is any of the trappings of the horror genre, in is John Goodman as an ATF agent investigating the Cooper clan and it’s Five Points Church on weapons charges. I would say it switches hats to become a thriller, except that it becomes so monologue heavy and the beats so predictable; Red State is no thriller.
Smith has cast several fine character actors here; actors who could have really made this movie excel, but instead are wasted with bad dialogue. Much like Smith’s previous work, the characters here love a good monologue. Unlike his previous work though, the character’s aren’t the light and lovable folks we love to listen to.
We watch opportunities come and then pass to make this movie special with actors like John Goodman, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Root. However, Goodman is victim to terrible direction and unenviable dialogue. Plus, he never seems sure in his role which is symptomatic of the whole movie. Root is wasted, being reduced to a slapstick punch line, and Pollack is once again squandered as the loyal partner and friend who tries to give the story gravitas with his own blood.
But not before having to choke out some terrible, and out of place jokes.
The only standout in the cast is Michael Parks as Abin Cooper. Despite being over-directed, Parks manages to create a character in Cooper that is at once kind and rage-inducing. Opting for creepily sweet rather than fire and brimstone, Parks is able to create some real tension early on. However, with his standout moment coming so early in the film, Abin Cooper never feels like a threat.
Which leads to the film’s message; I have no clue what the film’s message was. At times Smith tries to paint each side as right, and each side as evil. In fact both camps to have their moments of questioning. But I dare you to not laugh when Goodman is delivering the kill order to his tactical officer Harry (Kevin Alejandro). In a scene that I can only dub “Overacting Theater Presents…”, both actors appear to have been given no direction whatsoever and go completely over the top.
The thing about the pacing is that everything stops for these odd character moments, and takes you completely out of the situation. You can’t build tension if you keep breaking the little action you actually show to have two characters talk about what’s going on.
Which also keeps the audience from ever deciphering what kind of message the movie wants us to take from it. You want to steamroll the church and make this a “scary god people” movie. Great. “Anti-government, authority is the problem” type of movie? Okay.
Instead we get a muddled mash of a message, where Smith attempts to make the statement that both sides were wrong. However, even with a full SEVEN MINUTES of narration to close out the movie, Smith still can’t get this across. We are left with Federal Agents talking like typical Smith characters; complete with the term Coke-can cock. As well as a closing scene with the preacher that practically begs for a laugh track, or at the very least a slide whistle.
So we are left with a movie with no message, no character development or arcs and really- no ending. Kevin Smith manages to pull almost every punch he throws. Which brings me to my final point; the Coopers. It is clear that Smith has made a film inspired by the Phelps out of Topeka, KS (my backyard). I’m very familiar with these people, they’ve protested shows I’ve directed and insulted me personally. To pull the biggest punch of all and try to diffuse the statement you are making about them is the biggest cop-out of all. Why even mention the Phelps in the movie, when you are clearly basing this on them, and then say- well their not that bad. They just sue people.
In the end, I’m left not knowing what happened to the director and writer I used to be so passionate about. Not for the dick and fart jokes, but because he was genuine and stuck with what he was good at. Telling stories that real people relate to. Not flying off the handle if everyone doesn’t worship his latest film. I miss the filmmaker I would have loved to had a beer with.