Listless: The tragedy of Red State

red state

In premise, it sounded so good. Kevin Smith, famed pottymouthed comedian, would finally branch out into uncharted filmic territory (for him) with a violent, dark thriller heavily based on the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church. Red State, as it would be known, had a real shot at being a career rejuvenator for Smith, a rebuff to critics who’ve long accused him of being a one-trick pony, and mostly hated even that one trick.

Then, a funny thing happened: Red State turned out to be absolutely terrible.

Why is this? It’s a built-in premise for a horror movie, considering how damn scary Fred Phelps is without the slightest bit of script doctoring. Smith also assembled a murderer’s row of character actors (Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman) to help things along. This week, I’ll take a look at the levels on which Red State fails.

Five reasons that Red State pretty much blows:

1) The hype train was more interesting than the movie itself.

If memory serves, this started around the time of Cop Out, Smith’s ill-fated, unpromoted attempt to branch out into the role of studio hired gun. Some would argue that Smith’s been doing it his whole career, but when he was still turning out quality films, it was easier to respect shameless self-promotion. (The man needed to stop at Clerks II.) To hear Smith declare Cop Out his Beverly Hills Cop, only to then turn tail and pin the film’s failures on Bruce Willis was a surprisingly spineless move for a director known, for better and worse, for his remarkable candor in every scenario.

That’s nothing compared to the self-made hype machine for Red State. In addition to the cast, there was the hype and eventual fiasco behind Smith’s “live-auction” at Sundance 2011 for the distribution rights to the film, where he ended up announcing it would be self-released. I genuinely wonder, now, whether this would’ve come out had the job of distribution been entrusted to a studio interested in bottom lines. After all, a movie can’t flop if you don’t let it.

2) Smith doesn’t actually want to make movies anymore.

That’s not just fatalist speculation. From the mouth of the man himself, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly: “I don’t have the same passion for it I used to. I don’t have any stories left to tell.” This actually makes sense, given how detached much of Red State feels, down to its pseudo-visionary distribution model and how much more time Smith spends shilling his touring podcast recordings.

3) Red State can’t help but be a Kevin Smith movie.

At its opening, Red State follows both a horror mold and Smith’s general one: Three horny teenagers, with the internet-fueled promise of casual sex, head out for the backwoods, bantering all the while. Once there, the woman (Leo) has them drink a beer with her before they get down to business, the beers happen to be drugged and the boys find themselves inside the compound of Abin Cooper (Parks), a hellfire preacher whose ethos extend to a very hands-on approach to punishing the “wicked,” in the form of torture and murder.

The film at time builds an uneasy atmosphere, and Smith has one hell of a toy in his sandbox in the form of religious fanaticism, to many an inherently terrifying premise ripe for the genre treatment. What gets in the way of an at-least-okay horror movie (more on that later) is Smith’s editorializing, and the insertion of quirky wordplay and jokes where they don’t belong. Here, his authorial voice creates the Juno problem: There’s such a disconnect between the reality of the story and the way every character talks within it that the momentum is destroyed.

4) There’s not enough of a commitment to the lunacy hovering just beyond the edges of the frame. (Spoiler section.)

There is a moment near the end of Red State when it seems as though Smith’s acquired just enough hubris to take things over the edge. When Goodman’s federal agent finally corners Abin and the surviving members of his family (after a protracted action sequence that feels like nothing that’s happened previously), Abin’s daughter and one of the kidnapped boys are inadvertently shot and killed. Upon this, a massive blast of horns erupt, deafening all present and bringing a look of unadulterated glee to Abin’s face. (The successes of this movie almost fully belong to Parks; the man murders this role, and if you see it, do so just for him.) I, like many I watched the film with, gasped; is this really going to end with Abin vindicated by the coming of the Rapture? Had this been the case, Red State could’ve likely compensated for its shortcomings by a brash, dick-waving display of madness.

Instead, Smith decides to run this into the ground with a protracted explanation, delivered by Goodman to a small tribunal, about a group of hippies and a sound machine. Mind you, this scene, on the heels of some genuinely tense moments of action, returns to the crass humor of the film’s opening, at this point shockingly tone-deaf. Some bad jokes are made, the film basically ridicules everything that happened before and it just sort of screeches to a halt. The non-ending can work; see Burn After Reading for an example of the “this was bullshit” treatment handled very, very well. Red State just can’t stick the landing.

5) It’s three different movies in one.

Starting as a Kevin Smith comedy and morphing into backwoods horror, Red State also wears the skin of action movie. To Smith’s credit, at least the action isn’t as incoherent as Cop Out, but then that’s not particularly difficult to manage. Where the film gets lost is in its seismic shift halfway through into a siege movie, in which Goodman struggles with the morality of murdering everybody inside per his orders (he has an entire sub-story, which feels shoehorned just to make sure he had something to do besides glower) while red shirts get taken down in every direction. Any connection to character is lost in favor of gunplay, and it becomes clear that there are multiple lines of logic that Red State wanted to follow, and through indecision and a lack of proper editing just sort of chased them all simultaneously. This is what happens when a filmmaker fully insulates himself against criticism and works unchecked.

Red State can be found on Netflix Instant, and on DVD now.