This is my second post about Kevin Smith’s cinematic “swan song,” Red State. I realize I may be succumbing to the trench coat-clad director’s whims by spending so much of my time on it, but the movie practically screams out to the world “talk about me!”
I’ve already talked about the film’s uneven second half, but I’ve felt compelled to chronicle the film’s downfall. Like the collapse of the 2011 Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, there’s something magical and fascinating about the erosion of Red State. Strap in, this is a long one (but there are also lots of pictures!). Part of the successful eerieness of the opening half of the film is due to its undefined location. It takes place outside a town called Cooper’s Dell, but we don’t know in which state, we’re left to infer many of the specific details. Red State is made more frightening by it’s proximity to our reality; for many, this could just be a state away, or even a county away. The general Middle American, Bible-beltness of most of the settings (though some of it is obviously filmed in the LA area), could make the setting Oklahoma as easily as Montana or Kansas–vaguely southern, lots of back woods or barren country, and plenty of people willing to inflict their version of God’s wrath upon local sinners.
However, when the government gets involved, things get a bit more complex. As I’ve, maybe excessively so, already hammered home, Red State doesn’t dwell on the nitty-gritty details too much, except when it comes to noting
when ATF Agent Joseph Keenen (John Goodman) is called about the shenanigans and general goings-on at Five Points Church. When that happens Smith just has to let us know it’s at 4:47 a.m. with an obnoxious intertitle, a technique not used before or any time again during the entire run of the film. Why is it so important to know when Agent Keenen is roused from sleep? Moreover, we’re given so much expository information from dialogue, why not have the character complain about the god awful hour? This kind of specificity actually raises more questions than it attempts to answer, and in a movie so carefully plotted out until this point, it seems odd to think that Smith wanted to pass along this specific information. And if it’s so damn important that we know about this, why does Keenen have a fairly leisurely breakfast, with lots and lots of natural light, indicating at least an hour has passed since he was stirred from sleep for an emergency of such gravity?
When Keenen and his agents finally arrive on the scene outside Five Points, at an unspecified time, we don’t get an establishing shot of the compound. The layout of the interior, which we get a tour of early on, is unclear, but the labyrinthine design is meant to heighten the confusion and panic of the boys trying to escape, however, outside, we are not treated to even a cursory run down of the compound. We don’t know where the agents are in relation to the church, we see various locales like a stable, large storage containers, gates, and haphazardly constructed barricades; but these pieces are never really put together. This is something a filmmaker can and should do. Where are we? When you’re dealing with the ATF and establishing their location over a series of exterior shots, there’s no reason we can’t be situated on the compound with one location relative to another; this is just sloppy and doesn’t serve the film or the audience in any way.
The primary stand off itself is even fairly confusing. A conflict like this, between only two opposing forces, is a lot like dialogue: shot-reverse-shot. It’s a simple back and forth. Yet within this simple binary, Smith has trouble orienting all the players. Viewers have become more savvy as cinema has evolved, and many of the basic rules of cinema construction are understood, even if they aren’t dissected, however, with only a couple extra seconds of footage to establish relation and location, the viewer wouldn’t have to spend several extra seconds trying to decipher how two characters are conversing with one another. There’s a sequence fairly early in the standoff when Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his daughter Sara (Melissa Leo) dodge bullets and discuss how God will reward them for dying as martyrs. This should be laid out as carefully and thoughtfully as a back and forth over tea. Even though bullets are darting through the window, we should still KNOW where these two are, at least in relation to one another, if not actually place them in the compound somewhere specifically.
The first shot in the sequence of medium shots is of Cooper taking and returning fire with the ATF. After unloading one shot, we cut to Sara entering the frame.
We can make a lot of assumptions here. The lighting is similar, the room appears to be the same as the one Cooper is occupying in the previous shot, the stucco just outside the window looks very similar, she looks past the camera as though she’s acknowledging a human, however, we don’t know any of those things. Cut to Cooper dodging an ATF bullet.
And here, Cooper appears to acknowledge his daughter, but again, we don’t know any of this. As of now, these two things may be happening simultaneously, but we don’t even know that. Cut to Sara as she finally addresses her father.
Sara speaks fairly quietly, especially given all the gun fire and commotion, so once again, we can assume that she is close to her father. We can also assume that those familiar looks were to one another. Cut to the reverse shot which will give us our first real indication of the proximity between father and daughter.
In the bottom, left-hand corner of the shot, we can make out what appears to be Sara’s shoulder or elbow. After all of these assumptions, I think it’s safe to say, we understand where Smith has placed this pair in relation to one another, but it never gets clearer than this. We are never treated to a wide shot with both of them solidly in the frame so that we can understand that only the window and the frame are separating them. If Smith wanted to maintain the frantic pace of this scene (these shots are stuffed into a mere five seconds), one of these shots could have shown the whole tableaux instead of leaving this odd gray area where two people are most likely talking to one another from only a few feet away. We can still feel the frenetic and horrific violence and action without loosing this simple continuity.
But this sequence is minor compared to what comes a few minutes later. One of Cooper’s other daughters, Esther (Jennifer Shawlbach Smith), and her husband, Mordechai (James Parks), have an extended sequence where Smith can’t orient them within the compound to save his basic filmmaking sense.
We begin with a close up of an opaque head peering through a window:
In the name of confusion, Smith has a jump cut to a wider “establishing shot” of this same window being flecked with gun fire:
Thus far, we can assume we’re looking into the compound, what with the sign with “Condemn All” written on it and such; however, we don’t know where this window is or are we certain who’s head was peaking out in the previous shot. (Not a problem to have a little confusion, it just gets worse as we go along.)
Classically, when you see bullets strike something or some one followed by a cut to a person firing a weapon, the audience is meant to interpret that as a causal chain of events: we saw bullets breaking that class, then a shot of Abin Cooper firing a rifle, therefore Cooper must have been shooting at that window. We can further infer that the opaque head we saw peering through the class earlier was that of an ATF agent who had snuck into the compound without the viewers or the Five Points believers knowing.
Cut to Mordechai breaking the glass and grid from the frame. Now we know who’s head we saw three shots back, but was Cooper really unloading on his son-in-law?
Cut to Cooper as he dodges glass or gun fire? He’s reacting to something, but it’s not totally clear what that something is and since we’ve just seen Mordechai break the glass, there’s a chance that he’s trying avoid being hit by that.
Cut to a medium shot of Esther unloading a few rounds. Again, we’ve established a bit of a shot-reverse-shot pattern here, Smith has opened up the possibility of a mutiny since there’s a safe assumption that Cooper was the one firing at the window.
Jump cut to Esther, now on the right third of the screen instead of the center, still in mid fire. By nature, this jump cut does nothing to clear up the confusion. Esther is still potentially spraying automatic rounds in her father’s direction.
Cut to Mordechai shooting in profile. Again, clarity alludes the viewer.
For good measure, Smith is going to get full coverage of Mordechai firing at something. Cut now to Mordechai shooting directly into the camera. This shot is followed by an almost imperceptalbe shot of Mordechai backing to the wall for cover from a rain of bullets. Five straight shots that have done nothing to assuage the viewer that there is a potential mutiny; even though the prevailing logic is that this is just a causally problematic spatial relation and Cooper’s family is still with him fighting the ATF. 10 seconds have ellapsed since Smith implicitly planted the idea of a mutiny in the viewers’ heads, we cut from Mordechai seeking cover behind the window frame to the first implication of clarity.
Cooper barks orders to off screen right, yelling to Mordachai to go to the “top of the Crown.” It’s an order that’s confusing to the audience because we don’t know what the crown is, but that at least lets us know that Cooper, his daughter, and son-in-law are still on the same side.
Cut to Mordechai and Esther receiving the orders and running off obediently. Maybe only Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay can cram more confusing, continuity defying shots into a shorter amount of time.
This head-scratching 15 seconds is followed by Mordechai and Esther arming up through a series of jump cuts. Seriously, a nearly 15-second series of nothing but jump cuts. A shot usually meant to convey some sort of emotional or mental slippage is used to create an odd sense of tension, but succeeds in being more baffling than unnerving. I’m not going to trot out stills, jump cuts don’t communicate very well in a series of stills. Plus, some of the shot lengths are so brief as to make it nearly impossible to get a screen grab of them. And to truly understand how baffling the sequence is, you need to see each and every shot in all of its baffling glory.
I could spend another couple thousand words on a few other lesser scenes, but that would be focusing more on aesthetic choices rather than actively bucking decades of cinematic linguistic tradition or the stupefying inclusion of one intertitle. There’s also a lot to recommend the film for. Red State offers as many solid arguments for why Smith should continue to make films as damning reasons for him to just stick to podcasting. In this case, dissecting the glaring failures in Red State were too interesting for me to spend much time heralding the 45-50 minutes he got right.