Red State directed by Kevin Smith (The Harvey Boys and NVSH Productions, R, 88 minutes)
Starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman.
Honestly, I love complex narratives. When a storyteller leads me down a path and then pulls the rug from under my feet, I take a certain amount of perverse joy in the deception.
So then, Kevin Smith’s Red State, with no discernible protagonist and antagonist, ought to be a film that suits my interests. Sadly, not so. A fine line exists between an artistic shredding of stereotypical plot lines and lazily writing a complex mess. Red State is a complex mess.
Horny Teenagers Meet Fundamentalist Zealots
The movie begins with our first faux-protagonist, Travis (Michael Angarano) being driven to school. Startled by a fire siren, Travis observes a group of local fundamentalist protestors demonstrating at the funeral of a gay student. The protestors, modeled after Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptistcongregation, receive disgustful contempt from their neighbors who consider them a stain on the community’s reputation.
At school, this day, Travis connects with his friends, Randy (Ronnie Connel) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) and together they plan an elicit late-night rendezvous with someone he met in an adult chat room. The boys encounter Sara (Melissa Leo) at this rendezvous and learn much too late that the beer she served them held a potent mix of drugs knocking them out.
When the boys awake, they find themselves imprisoned at Five Points Church, the assembly of fundamentalist bigot Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). After a wordy sermon concerning the perils that sexual immorality places on society, Cooper unveils a bound prisoner whom the preacher describes as an immoral homosexual. With a chanted prayer of “send the heathen to hell” the church inflicts the judgment of God on the man through executing him via a bullet.
With the sound of gunshots alerting the police, a somewhat horrifying and mildly thrilling narrative transforms into a poor man’s Tarantino film as violence escalates into a situation similar to the events with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
During this shift, the viewer’s understanding of the protagonist and antagonist falls apart. The Five Points Church members who looked so cruel merely a few scenes ago gain clear justification to fight when it becomes evident that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has direct orders to kill every suspect on site. It is almost as if Kevin Smith holds an equal amount of hostility to the government as he does for Christian fundamentalism.
An Unsettling Massacre
Despite some intriguing themes in the film, the execution of the plot leaves the viewer extremely unsettled. Of course, unsettling does not equal a bad movie per se. One of my all-time favorite movies is Requiem for a Dream which portrays the brokenness of drug addiction. But where Requiem for a Dream depicted intriguing characters in their suffering, Red State’s characters only begin to convey intriguing traits right before they die unceremoniously. The lack of a good guy and bad guy forces the viewer to hate everyone instead of ponder the fact that there are no winners in violence of any kind. And finally, the plot is condemned by the glaring liberties it takes with logic.
To that final point, I feel I should dive deeper. Despite clear evidence that the Five Points Church compound contained both young children and INNOCENT hostages, the ATF continues to blindly follow orders despite clear evidence that demands a change in direction. Sure, the movie hints at the PR spin necessary to explain such a massacre but, again, this decision occurred around the premise that everyone in the compound was a free agent who chose to align with the Five Points Church.
Kevin Smith tried his best to make a movie in the mold of Quentin Tarantino’s finest black comedies. Instead, he created a mess of a film. The complex narrative pulls the rug out from under your feet but the fall doesn’t jostle you. Without the time to connect with any of the characters, the viewer feels nothing when the massacre begins. Yes, the movie made me think and I hold a slight appreciation for some of its depth, but the mess of a narrative offers enough evidence for me to strongly suggest that you avoid Red State.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards