I haven’t felt the desire to write much lately–as the date line on the second most recent post will indicate, but Kevin Smith‘s supposed cinematic swan song, Red State, has stirred something in me. I have a real soft spot for art with rough edges. Red State definitely fits the bill. I find the film so interesting, I’m compelled to compose two write-ups on Smith’s foray into horror: this more conventional review, and a breakdown of one of the film’s pivotal scenes; which will probably drop in a week or so.
As I’ve already implied, Red State is a mixed bag of a film. A film with a broad scope and vision without the budget to bring it to fruition, a run time without space to show it as thoroughly as needed, and an auteur without the patience to give each aspect it’s due diligence. However, what Smith has almost always lacked in technical skill, he’s usually made up for with above average to even great dialogue and an obvious love for the project.Red State is flush with this passion; it’s Smith’s love letter to horror films. The set up for a greatĀ  slasher film is all there: Three sex-crazed high schoolers, a back woods sojourn for that sex, and a moralistic madman who wants to keep virginity and purity intact by ending their lives. It’s a simple yet effective formula, when executed correctly. But Smith tries to do too much; starts writing a love letter, of sorts, to different genres, and it gets a bit muddled.
Red State begins as many great splatter flicks do, with Middle-American teens Randy, Travis, and Billy-Ray getting derailed by a crazed maniac–in this case, the Five Points Church group, on their way to a debaucherous rendezvous. The Five Points Church is led by preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who’s murderous contempt for homosexuality and sexual immorality makes Fred Phelps sound like a gay-rights activist.
Smith shows his strengths early in Red State. All three of the young men are horny, repressed, and sexually inexperienced in one fashion or another; this is a mentality familiar to Smith (as well as the bulk of his rapid audience). These three dudes are written with just enough life and wit to make them empathetic facilitators for the action, but not so much that we’ll be crushed if/when a couple of them are tortured and killed.
A compelling enough opening to get us to the reason for the season: the villain. Like in comic books, a horror film rises or falls on the strength of the evil-doer. Abin Cooper is the chilling, intense, and convicted cult leader the world fears; a perfect pitch man against the coming homopocalypse.
Like many great villains in film history, Cooper is a bit over-written. But Parks takes what could have been an overly dramatic, scenery chewing sermon and turns it into a smoldering, slow-burning appeal to the fears of his flock before ritualistically preparing and killing those who’ve been corrupted. Since Cooper’s preaching to the converted, Parks has the leisure to milk some of the finer verbiage and sneer up a storm rather than just stomp and holler about the altar. This is actually a more frightening scenario, that the stream of bile spewing from Cooper’s maw isn’t a sales pitch, he isn’t railing against a crowd of heathens, but leading a small pack of followers in their reaffirmations.
Since Five Points goes past picket signs to guns, they’ve raised government eyebrows. The church’s apprehension of the young men was just sloppy enough to get the local enforcement and eventually federal agents involved. And when the ATF and Agent Joseph Keenen (John Goodman) come on the scene, Red State makes a considerable shift tonally and structurally.
Much of the claustrophobic creepiness dissipates as the focus moves from the fates of the surviving teens to the logistics of the impending stand-off between Five Points and the ATF. The switch from one well-trod genre to another isn’t so jarring in the moment, but by the time the ATF bursts through the ramshackle walls built up around the church compound, it’s clear that the Red State of the first 40-50 minutes is no more. The confined spaces of secret basement chambers and tight close ups on Cooper as he seethes on the altar are replaced with the ill-defined grounds of the compound; a roving, Greengrassian camera; and rapid, disjointed editing.
In the new cinematic landscape, where continuity no longer holds water, there’s nothing particularly wrong with what happens once the ATF gets involved; except it becomes an entirely different film. When Keenen and company come knocking on the gates, Cooper goes from a Charles Manson-styled leader who orchestrates the evil but takes a back seat during the killing, to a gun-toting, blood-thirsty sharp-shooter. In fact, he’s the first of the church to take up arms. It’s not like the ATF knocked off most of his followers and he was left as the last soldier to defend church, he’s locked and loaded while others are still coming to grips with the situation.
After the carefully plotted first half, the slap-dash havoc of the film’s latter portion isn’t so much visceral, mirroring the insanity surrounding the compound, but sloppy. Smith also falls back on a weak deus ex machina to conclude the stand off and the ensuing government inquest is too neat and tidy for a film that seems so willing to delve into the twisted mind of a psychopath–only to leave his well-formed character by the wayside the second he’s faced with an overpowering force. Smith loses his hold on the film, cuts corners and drains almost all the good will stored up from the tense and chilling opening half. Smith takes the time to carefully craft the foreboding opening and to frame the horrific inner workings of Five Points Church, but can’t add an extra couple minutes here or an additional five minutes there to really provide transitions and a sense of closure that could actually be successful in criticizing zealotry and the American government (which get’s a weak back-hand at film’s end). Instead Smith just gives us the demented offspring of Michael Myers and Fred Phelps before throwing up his hands and blowing it all to hell.