Right from the opening shot of a small town, the cuts of scenery are so quick the audience doesn’t even know what they’re supposed to be looking at. Eventually the camera settles on a mother driving her son to school. On the way they pass a group protesting the funeral of a recently murdered homosexual student. Director Kevin Smith finally lingers on a shot of one of the protest signs featuring the phrase “Anal Penetration” in big, bold letters. We see the sign a few times more before the boy gets to school.
When he does, he explains to his teacher (who doesn’t even seem to mind his tardiness) why he’s late, and she launches into some unbelievably clumsy exposition about the group’s leader, Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a nut of a fundamentalist who’s universally despised around these parts and runs his own private Wacoville just outside of town. It’s also brought up at the murdered boy went to that very high school! Two things should immediately pop out: 1) If the kid went to that school, and was murdered two weeks ago, how on earth is it possible that none of his classmates knew him? And 2) If everyone already knows Abin Cooper, then why spend so much time explaining who he is, what he does, where he does it, why he does it…? The answer, of course, is to fill in the audience, but it’s done in such an amateurish way that you can’t believe it came from writer/director Kevin Smith, who’s not only made eight feature films, not only been writing professionally for nearly 20 years, but who’s also a man who prides himself on the quality of his writing.
And this is in the first three minutes.
From there, the movie follows the two boys and another friend looking to engage in a four-way with an Internet-based prostitute. It doesn’t occur to them that the only hookers the site offers are in New York and LA—except for one, who magically operates out of Pastor Cooper’s backyard. Kids these days.
The boys (I forget their names, if they’re even given, but one of them is played by Kyle Gallner) prepare for their rendezvous, borrowing a friend’s dad’s car and swilling too much beer to notice the car parked right in front of them, which they proceed to sideswipe. Cut to the parked car’s occupants: two men engaging in some vehicular fellatio. Now, get this, one of the men is the goddamned town sheriff (Stephen Root), who doesn’t even bother to report that the boys just kept driving on. What the hell kind of town is this?
Anyway, the boys get to the hooker’s (Melissa Leo), and she feeds them more beer until they pass out. Apparently they’ve been—big surprise—drugged, and when Kyle Gallner wakes up, he’s in a dog cage, which, if you’ve never seen your average dog cage, comes with the same kind of flimsy locking mechanism that even my old black Lab Augie could break out of simply by using his teeth. Unfortunately, Gallner’s not as clever as Augie, and so his only recourse is to scream obscenities until his throat is sore.
He discovers that he and his friends have been shanghaied to Pastor Cooper’s church. It’s here that the movie provides one of two highlights: Cooper’s sermon, which, for the first three minutes, is a flat-out brilliant performance by Parks, whose cadence and body language are mesmerizing—so much so that he doesn’t even need the incomprehensible gibberish of his lines. Parks carries it for another three minutes and eases the drag of the next three minutes, but the last three even he can’t salvage. Yes, Parks goes on for 12 of the movie’s 88 minutes, which, for our Mississippi readers is approximately one-sixth of the film’s running time.
Now we’re through nearly a third of the movie at this point. I haven’t even gotten to John Goodman’s entrance as ATF Special Agent Keenan, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Right now I’d like to make the point that, with about an hour left to go, the movie still hasn’t introduced its protagonist (and I apologize for the excessive use of italics, but, trust me, they’re warranted). Okay, back to Goodman, who appears at around the 40-minute mark and is called in to investigate and possibly invade Cooper’s compound.
Goodman is one of the finest actors of this or any other time, but this is one role he’s literally phoning in. And by “literally,” I mean just that: He gets his instructions via telephone, and guess what? He launches into a five-minute expository speech explaining who he is to his superior, his qualifications, and a number of other unnecessary details with all the enthusiasm of a languid carp. It gets to the point where even Smith’s camera is bored and wanders off to ogle the eggs and potatoes Goodman’s wife is cooking for breakfast (and which don’t even look appetizing).
Fast-forward to Goodman at the compound. He’s given the order to move in, and then proceeds to argue with one of his men about whether they’re doing the right thing. Nevermind that Goodman’s still in carp-mode. Nevermind that the other agent tries to make up for Goodman’s utter lack of emotion by wildly flailing his arms and painfully emoting. Nevermind that I forgot to mention earlier the scene where the sheriff’s back in his office and we see a flashback of the car accident we just saw five minutes ago. Nevermind that we’re somewhere past the halfway mark, and I’m still wondering whether the movie has actually started yet, but is the movie actually trying to weasel in a moral dilemma…for a character we just met 10 minutes ago? Forget all that. Goodman decides to move in, even if it means killing innocent women and children, and his reason is…wait for it…waaaait for it…he doesn’t want the FBI to take over.
Okay, I’ll spare further summarization and italics and just say that I hated Red State. And sorry, I had to get just one more in there. This is just a mess. A stinking, boring, pandering, patronizing, putrid mess. It’s not scary, it’s not thrilling, it’s not deep, it’s not funny, it’s not witty. It flies off in every direction without laying any groundwork for its characters or situations. We’re supposed to be scared at or sympathize with the predicaments of people we know absolutely nothing about and find deeper meaning behind scenes not even Smith cares about. Perhaps the ending is the worst offender in that regard, where Goodman (once again) just sits there talking about everything that happened like he’s reading off all the “Smiths” in the phonebook (couldn’t Kevin at least give us the “Xenons” or “Xaviers”?). None of it is shown, it’s just plainly and stupidly read to the audience. And it’s the worst screenplay Smith has ever written by far from a filmmaker who has the talent and knowledge to do better.
When the project was first announced, I had a lot of hope. A horror film seemed like an ambitious step for Smith but along the way his interested obviously plummeted to some twisted circle of hell even Dante, Satan, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius couldn’t foresee. The ending is even worse and has the audacity to try dredging up some sympathy for Cooper. It’s such a waste because telling the story from Cooper’s perspective could have, aided by Parks’s performance, made for an outstanding film. But no.
I’ve heard that Smith said he made this film not for a general audience and especially not for critics. If that’s the case, may God have mercy on them all.