Saturday, January 7, 2012

Red State

Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011) You could actually call this an indie cult film, independently financed with an auction to distribute at Sundance (which Smith harpooned to distribute himself), only running in major markets to qualify for unlikely Oscar nominations (Michael Parks, maybe; John Goodman, possibly but not likely), then quietly announced "special showings" throughout the country, presumably because the subject matter—about a homicidal religious cult, making the "cult film" literal—is so "hot" that moving, circus-like, from town to town for a limited time will discourage the "crazies" (of whatever stripe) from making the scene, making A Scene and picketing theaters.*

Needn't have bothered, really.  Any media coverage would have actually helped this film, even if it doesn't really deserve it.  It's Smith stepping out of his comfort zone (and just about everybody's) making a horror film about a religious cult that attracts lustful men on a web-site, doping them, and killing them for their homosexual tendencies that are targeting America (and the world—cited examples being African AIDS, Thailand tsunamis, and Sin City hurricanes) for rapturous Armageddon.

Forget the fact that these guys are hetero's looking to score, but, now you're getting all logical on us.

The Five Points Trinity Church, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, doing the Smith-riffing like it was exploding out of his head and having fine, venal fun with it) is so bent on destruction and self-destruction there's no reasoning with them or the cache of automatic weapons kept in a vast catacomb-like basement, required for your "gotta-have-'em" horror film chases. They're all wild-eyed zealots, none more creepy than daughter Sarah (last year's Oscar winner Melissa Leo, going a bit over-the-top), who's the boy-bait for the serial-sacrifices.

An evening's services (with communal execution) goes a bit south, and when a deputy is killed (oops), the ATF is called out in the reduced form of Joe Keenan (Goodman, who's lost a lot of weight) and ASAC Brooks (Kevin Pollak, a natural to be in a Smith movie, I think), who roll their eyes with memories of Waco backlash in mind.  They don't want to be there.  They know there will be no negotiation, the best they can do is keep the carnage down, which is not what the Church is interested in (nor, frankly, is the audience).  And as interesting as a dialogue-crazy Smith directed hostage-negotiation might be, this is designed for horror audiences, so things go to hell quickly.

So, there's enough real-world identification with David Koresh and Fred Phelps** for Smith to get on his soap-box (and he does with a particularly annoying teacher character at the beginning of the film, who would no doubt lose her job for saying what she does in the film), but he's a little restrained in the wise-ass department here (other than coming up with the idea in the first place and he doesn't mention Star Wars once).  He takes his template from Night of the Living Dead with the church members as both zombies AND barricaded potential victims, with a cascading story-line that starts with predators turning into victims, and their persecutors in turn turning into victims.*** Shooting on the pure-video Red camera system (maybe that's where title comes from?), the film can go just about anywhere and attach itself to anything on the run, which Smith, who also edited, hacks and slashes to cut out the transitional fat and keep the film moving unpretentiously fast.  Should have cut a little faster and a bit more, as Smith uses the low-dig' horror format to make up for his short-comings as a shot-planner, but still keeps "the precious words" of his script intact.  Too bad.  There's a few things that could have easily gone in the out-takes bin that were redundant or not helpful.  And then, just when things start turning really interesting, Smith pulls the rug out on the film, never venturing past its "potential."  But it seems to me if you're going to be a barn-burner, you might as well burn it to the ground, rather than having the bucket-brigade near by to douse it half-way through. 

Which is sad to me.  Smith's career as the slacker's "geek-fantasy-movie-maker" still suffers from the poor execution of good ideas.  A not terribly good film-maker, he still has potential as a superb script-writer.  Problem is, he fancies himself a troubadour, a singer-songwriter, even though he can't carry a tune.  Another director might be able to take a Smith script and hone it, polish it, and adjust it, so there are no slow spots, has a good sense of pace, and some actual composition to the frame, all things that Smith seems incapable of doing.  He has a filmmaker's brio, but no taste and no judgement (especially where his own work is concerned). 

His best film is the early-in-the-going Chasing Amy, but sadly, like Silent Bob and the protagonist in that film he's been incapable of doing anything better, in effect, ever since he's been chasing Chasing Amy.  Still, if Billy Wilder's counter-maxim of "You're only as good as your BEST film, not your last" is to be embraced, so, too, is the career of Kevin Smith, just so we can have that one film added to the library of great films.

* Actually, Smith, whose humor has never kept him out of a fight (he joined a Catholic protest picket of his own film, Dogma) showed it to the daughter of Fred Phelps' daughter when he took it to Kansas City.  Phelps brought her under-age kids, and Smith warned her that the film was "R"-rated and pretty raw.  Didn't matter.  But, predictably, she walked out 20 minutes in, saying the film was "filth."  Um, yeah, wasn't that what Smith was saying?

** The Waco references are for the Koresh family, which was merely Messiah-based and collected weapons like lost souls with triggers, but Phelps (which is composed—if one can use that term—largely members of his family, and is mentioned in the film, so no one can say that they're being directly targetted), the guy who protests at funerals for slain American soldiers, is so extreme—and media-whorish—that Jerry Falwell called him outright "a first class nut," and the Ku Klux Klan has participated in counter-pickets, declaring Phelps' church "hatemongers."  And you know how much the KKK hates that!

*** Smith's original idea would have taken the idea even further to a Higher Plain, that actually would have been pretty neat to see.  But, it would have required expensive special effects for a film done on a shoe-string (the entire effects budget was $5k).  And it gives Smith a chance to have that all important tag that wraps up his film in one good line: "People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe."

1 comment:

John Baxter said...

Really excellent review, some thoroughly insightful moments.