Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Thrillers Movie Review of ‘Red State’ (2011)

Movie Review of ‘Red State’ (2011)

Following a career of profane comedies and light-hearted relationship dramas, Kevin Smith moves into darker territory with 2011’s Red State. A jarring mishmash of horror and action supplemented with satire, the film is morally repugnant and unbelievably incoherent, ushering in a different side of Smith that I hope to never see again. Critics often describe films as being “schizophrenic,” but the term is overused and now comes off as pretentious. Red State, though, undoubtedly earns the label: it’s schizophrenic to extremes. In a notorious move, Smith fostered a lot of interest in the film by purchasing the distribution rights himself and screening the film during a multi-city tour which also included Q&A sessions and memorabilia auctions. Indeed, Red State developed into more of an event than just a film. Unfortunately, however, the finished product is stunningly underwhelming, to the extent that it feels like a bad joke on the part of Smith.

In the South, three randy teenage boys – Jarod (Gallner), Travis (Angarano) and Billy-Ray (Braun) – begin using the internet to find easy sex, and organise to hook up with a mysterious woman (Leo) who lives near their hometown. What the boys fail to realise, though, is that they are being set up by a controversial group of extreme fundamentalists who detest homosexuals. Presided over by the psychotic sermon-spouting patriarch Abin Cooper (Parks), the boys are drugged and bound, with the pastor looking to ritualistically murder them all before his congregation. However, a group of ATF agents led by Joseph Keenan (Goodman) arrive at Cooper’s compound with orders to move in and slaughter everyone inside.

Why exactly were these young teenagers chosen for ritual execution? Blown if I know. The church are vehemently anti-homosexual, yet they want to kill a bunch of kids who were attracted to the notion of pussy? It’s mildly suggested that the church abhors sexual deviancy, but the film fails to touch upon this notion in any considerable fashion, and there’s absolutely no motivation. Not to think too deeply into Smith’s thinking, but it sets off alarm bells that the writer-director refused to insert gay protagonists into this story about a church of homophobes.

It’s clear that Smith’s primary objective with Red State was satire, but his ambitions far outweigh his abilities. The film initially sets its sights on religious fundamentalists who fool themselves into believing that they can commit unspeakable acts in the lord’s name. To Smith’s credit, the religious satire is actually spot-on, with Smith staging a number of nail-bitingly tense and frightening sequences. But Smith soon progresses the story into, well, another movie entirely. Suddenly, Red State dissolves into a mindless action flick which is so tonally schizophrenic that you may get whiplash. Smith’s satiric target becomes the American government, reinforcing the tired message that Americans are terrible at handling terrorist situations. But whereas the religious satire was mature and effective, the governmental material relies on outright slapstick, dumb theatrics and predictable throwaway lines, as if a teenager wrote it. It feels like two separate people wrote the two halves of the film, and Smith just jammed them together with no thought towards thematic or narrative coherence. Consequently, Red State is a jumbled mess of ideas. Smith wanted to do too much within the film’s scant 85-minute runtime that none of the satire ultimately leads anywhere, and the film fails as both an action picture and a horror movie.

As the picture begins to wind down, a late twist suggests that all hell is about to break loose and the production is about to take on an entire new meaning that could’ve transformed it from audacious dud to minor miracle. But alas, it was not to be. Smith just cuts away at random, and the rest of the movie comprises of Agent Keenan explaining the boring specifics of how the skirmish ended. The twist itself, meanwhile, just becomes a punchline for a dumb joke. It’s deflating, but all the more infuriating if one reads Smith’s description of the ballsy original ending. The final scene here is completely unnecessary and exceedingly pedestrian, with the characters spelling out every thought and message in Red State‘s cinematic body. It’s the equivalent of having an 8-year-old boy yell straight into your ear with a megaphone. Furthermore, Smith clearly takes issue with abuse of government power to silence potential terrorists. But Cooper’s church are terrorists; they stockpile guns, they kill on a whim, and they’re morally damaged. This confuses the movie’s entire concluding point. What the fuck?

Smith often excels as a writer (though this is not demonstrated here), but he’s a mediocre director. 2010’s Cop Out emphasised how incompetent Smith’s filmmaking is, and Red State is equally disheartening. A lot of the editing is much too harsh, which botches the tempo of several scenes, while director of photography David Klein heavily leans on predictable visual tactics like shaky-cam and body-mounted cameras to poor effect. There’s also a tremendous problem with the climactic shootout: there’s no rhythm. All Smith does is stage a lot of minor character dialogue moments set to non-diegetic gun-firing sounds, and every few minutes we get a customary shot of a few people firing their guns for which they seem to have unlimited ammunition. It diminishes the sense of immediacy, because people only seem to get shot every 5 minutes or so, and there seems to just be a lot of mindless shooting without casualties. As a result, the whole enterprise grows mind-numbingly tedious, and the actual shootout itself becomes too much of a fringe threat.

At the very least, Smith assembled one hell of a cast here. In particular, Michael Parks delivers a stunning performance as Pastor Abin. If Parks knew that Red State was bad, he doesn’t show it; he truly went for broke, and he’s easily the film’s most valuable asset. However, Smith seems too enamoured with Parks to discipline his performance, resulting in sermons that drag on forever. Yes, I know that Smith had a lot to say, but brevity is appreciated. John Goodman, meanwhile, is predictably good as Agent Keenan, and the trio of boys playing the teens all did a great job. Special mention must be made of Kerry Bishé, who will probably be forever known as the one who destroyed Scrubs after having become the new protagonist in the show’s dismal final season. Here, Bishé shows genuinely impressive acting chops as Cheyenne, one of the only adults in Cooper’s church with something resembling a moral compass.

I’ll credit Red State with one thing: it’s wildly unpredictable, and it has its moments. Whatever fans of the movie which exist will probably proclaim that it’s entertaining because it’s uniquely crazy, but that entirely comes down to opinion. For me, the picture may work in pieces but it fails to gel as a whole. Smith tried to pack the film with historical and societal relevance, yet the filmmaker stumbles to do anything substantial with his ideas, merely staging brainless shootouts and tediously extended monologues. It seems Smith simply made things up as he goes along, hoping that heightened shock value and repulsive acts will add up to something laudable. In the end, Red State is exceedingly superficial; it’s all about gimmicks rather than genuine substance.


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