Kevin Smith’s 2011 film was a major departure for him. It wasn’t the usual comedy (his last one being the very awful buddy-cop comedy, Cop Out) but instead his first foray into one of film’s earliest film genre: the horror film. Say what you want or feel about Kevin Smith (and there’s a huge range of people who either love the man or hate him like the second coming of the Antichrist) but when he decides to make a film he puts everything of himself on display and he wears his emotions on his sleeves when it comes to his films. It’s this aspect of Smith’s personality which has gained him such a loyal following, but has also earned him the scorn and, for some, hate of film bloggers who now constitute the bulk of film criticism in the digital age. This first horror film for Kevin Smith would be called Red State and it would be a film that would continue to expand the gulf between those who hate him and those who support him. Lost in this playground-like tiff was whether the film would be a return to form for Smith or just a continuation of some very bad films in the last half-decade.
Red State could almost be called a coming-of-age story since the film begins with three high school boys joining together to travel to a neighboring town where they hope to engage in some sexual extracurricular activities. It’s also in this very town that we learn very early on in the film that the Five Points Church calls home. This church and it’s congregation has one Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) as it’s leader with it’s membership either related by blood to Cooper or by way of marriage. In this picture would arrive an ATF task force led by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman) to investigate the illegal doings of Cooper and his flock. It’s between these two groups that the three teenage boys would find themselves in a horrific situation with their lives in the balance.
Let’s just say that this film had much potential in it’s plot and how it’s initially set-up. The character of Pastor Abin Cooper and his flock was definitely patterned after the Westboro Baptist Church led by Fred Phelps who’re infamous for picketing funerals of soldiers and for being outright homophobic in their teachings and ideology. The ATF group with Keenan in command looks to be set-up to represent the Federal government and it’s police agencies run amok in their attempt to fight terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001. Then Smith drops in three horny teenage boys in the mix and it sure must’ve read like a surefire story with horror and action.
What we get instead was a film which didn’t seem to know how to proceed with the initial set-up. The film began and played out like something similar to Hostel and films of a similar vein. Unsuspecting teens lured by sex to be made an example of by a group of people extreme in their passions and ideas. If the film had continued with just those two groups as the core of the film’s story then it could’ve made for a decent survival horror film, but the addition of the ATF task force and how they impacted the dynamics between the congregation and the teens unbalanced everything. Now what was suppose to be a horror film turned into an action-drama.
The performances by the cast was also inconsistent. This could be due to the weakness of the screenplay which tried too hard to push Cooper and his people as batshit crazy through overly long sermons. Sermons by Abin Cooper that was delivered by Michael Parks in convincing fashion at times and then mumbled incoherently at others. The three teens were also a problem in that they weren’t sympathetic by any means. Even knowing what awaited them didn’t lessen the fact that these three teens were obnoxious and vulgar to the point that we didn’t care if Cooper and his people tortured and killed them.
One would expect that the addition of John Goodman as the ATF special agent and Kevin Pollak as his assistant would at least bring some serious acting chops to the proceedings, but their characters were so thinly-written and their dialogue so forced that one couldn’t believe them as real characters. It’s a shame that the film’s overall screenplay couldn’t provide the necessary foundation for a cast that had a very good veteran ensemble which included Melissa Leo, James Parks and Stephen Root.
Red State really failed in the very thing that was suppose to make this film the beginning of a shift in Kevin Smith’s career. It failed as a horror film in the most general sense. There was never any true feeling of horror to be had throughout the film. Even the first death of an unnamed homosexual kidnapped by the congregation to be used as an example during one of Cooper’s sermons failed to elicit any form of horror. This was a film which had much potential for some horrific sequences but it never explored it. The film doesn’t even work as a thriller which would be the closest this film ever got to be. Even the ending of the film which tried to inject a semblance of the supernatural didn’t even work as it turned out to be a major bait-and-switch that didn’t come off as creative once it was explained.
Does the film justify some of the venom hurled at it from Kevin Smith’s detractors?
I would say no in that the film wasn’t the worst thing he has made by a long shot. It did have some moments that hinted at something special could’ve been made if someone else was involved or if the film had more time to be worked on. I do believe that if Red State was made by anyone else other than Kevin Smith it would be considered average to good. But having such a polarizing figure as it’s creator and marketer might have blinded some in actually watching this film with an open-mind.
Does this mean Red State was actually a good film?
I would say no with the reasoning I’ve mentioned above. But I will say that the film wasn’t dull or boring. As unnecessary as the ATF task force to the story as a whole their arrival and the subsequent reaction of the congregation to them made for some exciting few minutes. Even Michael Park’s performance was quite good despite some of his line deliveries coming off as incoherent mumblings.
If Red State was to be Kevin Smith’s attempt to try and move away from his history of making comedies then it was a failed one. While it was a failure I wouldn’t mind him going back to the genre to hone his skills in doing more horror. If Uwe Boll could continue making even worst materials then surely Smith could be given another chance to make another and fix the very things which he did wrong with Red State with another horror film project. One thing for sure he would not be lacking in actors wanting to work with him.