Red State (2011)

November 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Michael Parks in Kevin Smith's "Red State"

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith

Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Anganaro, Michael Pollak, Kevin Pollak and Stephen Root

At some point in a successful filmmakers’ career, they move beyond reproach. Criticism might still get to them, they might still be trying to elevate their craft, but they reach a point of commercial, critical and personal success that they’re beyond the watchful eye of all knowing producers and studios and they must live and die by their own vision. Kevin Smith always lived on the edge of that point, from Clerks onward. Cop Out withstanding (Smith’s true experimental film in which he eschews any and all style for the offensively bland), Smith has toppled over the edge, trying to move far beyond his dialogue-centric odes to intellectual slackerdom with Red State, a self-consciously clever, serious genre-trope heavy ode to horror films of old with underlying messages.

Whether it be the classic stand by of no-sex before marriage (because only the virgins survive ala’ Halloween) or something a bit more ambitious such as a statement on race and consumerism (Night of the Living Dead and its sequel Dawn of the Dead). No matter what the final outcome is, horror maestros tend to take their craft rather seriously and want their intellectual message to be heard through the blood, guts, jump scares and gratuitous nudity.

With Red State, Smith is trying to tackle the more vague notions of a right wing conspiracy to force the country to fall in line with its hypocritical Christian-based belief systems, also dropping hints of the political rhetoric of Republican candidates that feeds into an under educated constituency. His primary targets are the highly publicized scapegoat for extremism fodder known as Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, as well as the notoriously tragic stand off between the Branch Davidians’ and ATF agents in Waco, Texas some years ago. He goes as far as to mention both groups so as to distance his film from any accusations of parody or commentary on real people, lest he be sued for defamation-smart man.

While Smith’s film is ambitious, his lack of proper film school and his self-taught skills are readily apparent in this, what he’s claimed to be his magnum opus, to the detriment of its singularity and his unique vision. The film benefits from a very strong cast, led by the charismatic snake oils salesman performance of prophet, preacher and Fred Phelps knock off Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks in a tour de force that eschews scenery chewing for an upbeat earnestness that belies his misguided message. The character is a perfectly balanced marriage between Branch-Davidian leader David Koresh’s softer, fatherly persona and Fred Phelps’ more miserly psychobabble. The stubborn escalation of his war against modernity and secular living could be attributed to either, with proper references to both men.

Where ‘Red State’ goes wrong is in the irony of a man known for his blue collar characters’ witty repartee on low brow subjects making a decidedly low brow feature with high brow ambition in its heart. From the low-grade HD cameras to the self-conscious handheld cinematography, everything about Red State screams Direct-to-Video film school novice fare. Perhaps people will read deeper into the thematic elements because they know who is at the helm and what he’s done in the past, but I don’t think Smith’s utilization of such cheap tactics was intentional, beyond the obvious money saving elements for a film that, while certainly cheap at a $4 million production cost (out of Smith’s own pocket, no less) certainly isn’t a bargain basement assembly.

I suppose on some basic level he achieves the goal of presenting the traditional atmosphere of a horror film, with the small town setting, the horny teenagers instigating the events and some psychos out for illogical blood. However, when the trope is combined with the highly ambitious inclusion of topical commentary and dramatizing of historically significant events like Waco and the preaching of Fred Phelps, it’s a stew with too many ingredients. Not even the most skilled chef, or in this case film maker, could pull off each individual element to satisfactory conditions, with one sub-genre suffering at the hands of another throughout the proceedings.

As with all his films, Smith’s saving grace is a colorful, willing cast and whip smart dialogue, but Red State is ultimately what it looks to be: an ill-conceived overly ambitious under-funded project by a director whose ideas were too big for his britches.

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