I hate you, Kevin Smith. I’ve hated you ever since Dogma. While I didn’t hate Dogma initially (the movie caught me at a particularly weird time wherein I was just awakening to my lifelong, yet at that point latent, atheism and the movie’s freewheeling religious message left me feeling uplifted and secure in a tepid belief in god), in retrospect I think the movie was a cop out, an attempt to please both believer and unbeliever alike. Conversely, Red State, Smith’s latest and hopefully last film, failed for the opposite reason.
After a string of disappointing releases and humiliating personal incidents, Smith went serious with Red State, a movie I avoided on general principle until seeing a trailer on cable. It gave the impression of being a solid little horror film, with a decent skewering of those reprehensible Westboro Baptist assholes, so I decided I’d shell out ten bucks to see it.
There were few highlights. Michael Parks took what was essentially a caricature of Fred Phelps (who is a bit of a caricature himself) and imbued it with nuance, but that’s what great actors are supposed to do. Nicholas Braun’s majestic mullet/rat tail combo should be in the white trash hairdo hall of fame. The cult scenes were pretty realistic. But that was about it.
The movie starts out strong; three high school age hicks decide to lose their virginity with a woman they find on some craigslist-like website, only to discover the ad was a ploy enacted by a notorious family/cult operating in a compound nearby, with the intention of punishing all and sundry sinners. The film spectacularly derails with the introduction of the ATF, who are sent to the compound after an investigating deputy is shot by the leader of the cult.
Here Smith decides to double down on the message and introduce a critique of the government’s handling of the Waco debacle, except it never really gets off the ground. Smith spends a good deal of time humanizing the abhorrent cult, yet the ATF officers are one note as ever. In addition, they change motivation at breakneck speed. The moral core of the group, the only officer who protests the decision to kill everyone inside the compound, even though there are a good deal of women and children present, is the same guy who guns down two innocent escapees after the fire fight ensues.
The plot meanders on aimlessly, bullets zipping past agents’ heads standing in for tension, the fuck-addled cult members firing on the agents from inside the compound are played for comic relief. Then something truly bizarre happens. I won’t give it away, but the phrase ‘deus ex machina’ immediately sprang to mind, so much so that I think Smith had to include this last, bizarre plot point as a nod to a classic story telling gaffe.
Afterward everything is explained, except by that point you don’t give a shit. I checked out when the last main character was killed off, not because I think that is anathema to a good story, because I don’t at all. Hell, I wish more main characters were killed off in movies. I checked out mentally because there was no discernable point of view. Cults are bad, but the government is worse. Religion is bad, but belief is good, sometimes. No one is entirely good or bad (except people who work for the government, they’re all assholes, apparently). The social group most derided by these sorts of cults, i.e. gays, are included in the movie only for a cheap laugh and to ferry the wayward plot along.
Smith had a tight and compelling movie when the narrative dealt chiefly with the cult members’ warped view of society. He touches on a genuine and confounding problem; mainly, how to reconcile free speech with the most disgusting, medieval rhetoric imaginable. There is a great point to be made about the downside of all religious fanaticism, obviously a hot button issue. But he blows it with the government critique, which really isn’t a critique at all, just a down and dirty way of rounding out the plot. Smith’s greatest strength is the dialogue and character construction. His greatest weakness is plot development. This plot is like a man being quartered by horses; it takes off in several different directions until the whole thing erupts into a mist of blood and tissue.
So, Mr. Smith, from a girl who adored Clerks, who wanted nothing more in her late teens and early twenties to make a movie as subtle and clever and irreverent as it was, I am respectfully requesting that I please have my money back.