Sharp-toothed satire has teeth of a tiger, balance of a wiskerless cat
At its core, writer/director Kevin Smith’s new film Red State is a great movie and a giant leap forward for Smith as a filmmaker. With Red State, a striking mix of action-heavy bleakness and sharp-tongued satire, Smith has directed a movie that looks and feels completely organic and free from the self-imposed creative restraints the filmmaker has spent most of his career shackled by. A constantly moving camera, a total lack of musical score and some hard-edged violence make for an often brutally realistic film that has a definite edge to it.
Unfortunately, the core of Red State might be a highly dense, constantly shifting, fiery-tempered ball of goodness but, like the core of the planet Earth, it’s surrounded by a lot of impenetrable rock — some of it beset with hard-to-ignore cracks.
Michael Parks stars as Abin Cooper, a deeply devout man of God and patriarch to the small, country-fried religious sect Cooper’s Dell. Courting controversy by picketing the funerals of homosexuals, Cooper and his family are seen by their community as holy rolling boogiemen — better left to their own devices and ignored than confronted about their unpleasantness.
For a trio of horny teenagers looking forward to a three-way with an older woman (the date set up through an Internet sex forum), the supposedly justified wickedness of Cooper’s Dell becomes a bit hard to ignore once the Cooper clan is revealed to be running nightly internet pervert sting operations — luring sodomites and hedonists into their web via the World Wide Web.
Captured by the family, the three boys (played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner) are tied up and made to witness the murderous lengths the Cooper family will go through to prove their devotion to Jesus and his teachings — however misrepresented those teachings might be.
From there, Smith’s film takes off like a bottle rocket without proper stabilization — zipping all over the place and highly likely to take an eye out with its reckless cacophony. It’s obvious that Smith intended his film to shock and titillate. Violence and death comes frequently and often at the most unexpected of moments. Shifting perpetually from a biting wit to bullets whizzing through the air, Red State never completely locks down a singular tone — instead using its unpredictability to keep audiences on their toes.
Smith is the Lucy to the audience’s Charlie Brown — constantly pulling the football away from their reach before they go to punt, knocking viewers off-balance and sending them flat on their backs. And, just when you begin to expect Lucy/Smith’s ruse and decide to hold back from going for another punt, the director pulls out a Glock and shoots you in the kneecap.
While this tumultuous barrage of unexpected plot twists combines nicely with cinematographer David Klein’s crisp yet kinetic visuals and Smith’s top-notch editing job, there’s something vital missing from Red State — a vacuum. If the film’s core had a core of its own — a black hole that sucked out all extraneous sub-plots and over-long bouts of dialogue — Smith could have had something truly special on his hands with Red State.
As a film, Smith’s movie is high in energy and would be best served if audiences never had a chance to catch their breath. The whiplash of twists and turns would have kept audiences from noting just how shallow and underdeveloped the characters are or how the script could have used just one more draft to clean up some of its unnaturally clunky flow. Unfortunately, Smith seems to be have been far too much in love with his words and the talented cast he has gathered to deliver his words. The film’s ensemble includes such luminaries as Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Kevin Pollak. While its tempting to let such seasoned pros to chew away at their hearts content on the scenery as if it was made of cheese, Smith should have reigned back some of the performances and kept his film more tightly wound around its basic conceit of nonstop unpredictability.
When Red State should be barreling down a trajectory path of no return, it frequently, and criminally, took too many moments to completely halt the action and let characters kill the momentum with lengthy and unwieldy monologues overstuffed with exposition.
Like a bucket of water dumped over your head during sex, these long scenes, whether it be Parks giving a venom-laced sermon as Cooper or Goodman, as a federal ATF officer tasked with bringing Cooper’s family down, arguing with his superiors via a phone conversation audiences can only hear one side of, contribute to Red State slamming flat against a brick wall of dialogue — effectively killing the energy Smith has been so diligently building just moments before.
Smith has frequently gone on record as saying Red State is his attempt to make a Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino film. While glimpses of these filmmakers’ influences can be seen in Smith’s movie, Red State is its own beast. The movie is hard to define and harder to completely dislike.
Smith goes full bore into trying to create something fresh and new for his career and he mostly succeeds. While the movie has some frequent pacing and plotting issues, it has enough juicy pulp running through its veins to make it more than worth a watch.
Director: Kevin Smith
Notable Cast: Michael Parks, John Goodman, Kevin Pollak, Melissa Leo and Stephen Root
Writer(s): Kevin Smith