The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Red State

Red State is a shining example of a filmmaker abandoning all his gifts. In movies such as Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kevin Smith showed a penchant for creating identifiable characters and crafting smart, witty dialogue. Red State marks a step in a new direction; it's a horror film, not a comedy. I have no problem with Smith trying out a new genre and, in fact, I admire his willingness to go outside his comfort zone. The issue is that he brings none of his previously-established skills with him. The film is packed with characters we don't like spouting inane, mannered dialogue. Sadly, that's only one of the problems this great big mess of a movie has working against it.

The story begins with three horny high school pals – Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) – heading to the tiny town of Coopers Dell in order to have a gangbang with a woman they found on the internet. When they get to the home of the woman, Sara (Melissa Leo), they discover that it's a trap. Sara is one of the most devout members of the Five Points Church, run by the messianic preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Smith's inspiration here is the vile Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, the ones who picket funerals with signs that read “God Hates Fags.” That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Cooper and his followers, except that they take things a step further by killing the sinners who they believe are a disease in society. Since the boys were in search of aberrant sex, they're next up on the list. The “service” goes afoul, drawing the attention of the closeted local sheriff (Stephen Root), and later, the ATF. John Goodman plays the ATF agent on the scene during what evolves into a deadly standoff between law enforcement officials and church members. One parishioner, a young woman named Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe), seems to have not fully embraced Cooper's ideals; she tries to get the children out of the compound before something awful happens.

So here we have a story packed with unlikeable misogynist teen boys and hateful, bigoted church folk. Even the “good guys” are tough to like, given that they seem a little too eager to fire bullets at the members of Five Points. The moral outlook of Red State is hard to get a pulse on. Smith clearly doesn't like the church, showing it to be a den of intolerance that actually goes against the very tenets of Christianity it allegedly preaches. But he doesn't like the government either, suggesting that it can't be trusted not to eliminate anyone that presents a nuisance. This lack of clarity nullifies any point the story might be trying to make. Are we rooting for the agents to shut down the church, or for the church members to foil the government's plans to spin the standoff into something that wins public favor?

Smith doesn't fully exploit the idea of the church either. I don't know about you, but I find the Westboro Baptist Church terrifying. Their self-righteous hatred lacks even the most basic sense of human compassion. Since the WBC is the obvious inspiration for Five Points, the cinematic church should be terrifying too. Regrettably, we never learn why these people believe such radical things, or how they came to fall under the influence of Abin Cooper. And, really, a megalomaniac such as Cooper should be a palpable source of menace whenever he appears on screen. No offense to Michael Parks, who gives it his all, but the screenplay just doesn't establish the character or his world to any satisfactory degree. He's more smug than evil.

What the movie does deliver is dialogue – lots of it, in fact. Not typically smart Kevin Smith dialogue, either. Red State gets bogged down in long stretches of cumbersome speechifying that repeatedly stops the action cold. In one especially awkward scene, John Goodman is forced to deliver several straight minutes of exposition over a bluetooth phone; we never see or hear the person on the other end of that call. Not long after the boys are kidnapped, Cooper gives a sermon that literally goes on for more than ten minutes, stopping the story just as it's ramping up. Worst of all, Red State robs the audience of a finale. Instead of showing what happens, Smith cuts to one character explaining what happened. Aside from being a letdown, the scene is extraordinarily clunky.

With no solid dialogue to rely on, most of the cast members compensate by overacting. Astoundingly, Smith has managed to coax embarrassing performances from Goodman, Leo, and Root – three actors who have earned reputations for always being solid. Leo, in particular, falls back on melodramatics. I don't fault her; if she had stronger material to work with, her performance might have felt appropriate.

It is amazing how bad Red State is. The film has no sense of pacing at all. Momentum starts to build and then is abruptly halted for lengthy monologues. It also has a tone that fluctuates wildly. Scenes that feel ripped out of a horror movie are interspersed with inconveniently placed moments of comic relief. What seems to begin as an exploration of a dangerous religious phenomenon evolves into a substandard shootout, with bullets flying and bodies dropping. The filmmaker is unable to reign all this stuff in, to make it coherent. There's no doubt Smith believes he is saying something important, but whatever that “something” is gets lost in a sea of incoherent directorial choices. What a shame. Someone of his insight tackling a subject of this nature could have made for a really compelling, scary story.

It's official: Cop Out is no longer the worst movie in Kevin Smith's filmography. Red State is a disaster.

( out of four)

Red State is rated R for strong violence/disturbing content, some sexual content including brief nudity, and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.