Chapter and Versus
When Kevin Smith announced his retirement from filmmaking earlier this year, I was disappointed. He's made some of my favorite movies of the last sixteen years, and it pained me that he'd let a couple of box-office disappointments sour him on the business so much that he'd leave it altogether. Granted, I don't know Smith, and am only speculating that he'd still be in the game had Zack and Miri Make a Porno or Cop Out been smash hits, but I can say that he's taking the scorched-Earth route out of showbiz.
Even as he preps his last project, a two-part hockey dramedy called Hit Somebody, Smith has established a mini-podcasting empire, where he and his friends host multiple, weekly roundtables covering everything from movies to marriage. I guess it's his way of hermetically sealing the pot-smoke-filled hate bubble he constructed to fend off withering criticism. But making movies is not like podcasting or blogging: one can't just "riff" a good film into existence and then claim that anyone who doesn't like it is a square or a hater.
Case in point, Smith's second-to-last feature, Red State. The writer/director shifts gears from the slacker comedies that made him famous to tell a horror story about religious fundamentalism and the hyper-militarization of the U.S. government. This might have worked had Smith actually had something to say beyond foul-mouthed versions of Hollywood-liberal* talking points filtered through a lite version of the long-dead torture-porn genre.
Three high-schoolers, Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner), learn of a Craigslist-type service for sex workers, and arrange a foursome with a middle-aged woman who lives in the next town. On arrival, they're drugged and taken to the compound of a religious fundamentalist named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who intends to sacrifice them to his angry, gays-and-sexual-deviants-hating God. A cross between Fred Phelps and David Koresh, Cooper preaches scripture to his modest, armed-to-the-teeth flock of twenty and leads them in publicly protesting the funerals of gays and soldiers.
Two of the three boys escape, but are gunned down by Cooper's men and, in a case of mistaken identity, the closeted local sheriff (Stephen Root), who's part of the S.W.A.T. contingent staked out in front of the compound. Much of Red State plays like an extended version of the opening of The Devil's Rejects, with feds and fundies exchanging heavy gunfire and pseudo-philosophical musings. As the lone, surviving teen, Jarod plots to escape and runs into Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), Cooper's eldest granddaughter, who wants to get her handful of siblings to safety. This proves to be difficult, as the head of the S.W.A.T. unit, Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), is operating under orders to kill everyone inside.
I'll give Smith this much: Red State doesn't feel like a Kevin Smith movie. It feels like a Rob Zombie movie, complete with archetypical redneck characters, twisted violence, and just enough visual trickery to keep the audience from nodding off. The movie's downfall is its screenplay.
From the beginning, we're meant to hate Cooper and all the members of his Five Points Church, which is fine. Every good movie needs a great villain. But Smith doesn't say anything about the group's inner workings or discuss the roots of their philosophy aside from a vague "passed on from one generation to the next" reference; they're Jonestown 2.0, Kool-aid-drinking automatons with automatic weapons who hate the government and the world of the flesh. We've seen this easy stereotype many times before, and Smith's big mistake is that he neither differentiates his lunatics from any other popular portrayals nor goes out of his way to make us believe that these people could actually exist. In the Red State universe, all believers are violent, stupid nutcases, just as all gays are walking sex acts. People are reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys whose only function is to die spectacularly and for no good reason.
While Parks is alternately captivating and annoying (note to filmmakers: unless your lead actor is actually Jesus, no one--and I mean no one--wants to sit through a ten minute sermon in the middle of a seige/horror movie), he's just a collection of speeches wearing the skin of a man. Not even Oscar-winner Melissa Leo can do much with her role as Cheyenne's hysterical mother because she's so thin on paper. The only actor who does semi-well here is Goodman, but he, too, stumbles over Smith's ham-handed soap-box diatribes as if constantly wondering where the dialogue got off to.
Speaking of these diatribes, I could handle and even appreciate Smith's use of creatively harsh language back when he was writing about convenience-store clerks and mallrats. But when he stuffs reaction-craving-hipster-speak into the mouths of government bureaucrats, I have to wonder if he even knows how to write a character that in no way resembles himself. The penultimate scene involves Keenan sitting through a private hearing on the compound raid; once his interrogators turn off the video camera, they begin chatting like twelve-year-old boys who've just discovered Noam Chomsky. When one of the men says, "Patriot Act, bitch!" with pseudo-ghetto ease, I sprained my eyes from rolling them.
I almost forgot the most important thing I learned from this film: making kids cry for real isn't cool. When a little girl starts bawling as she's ordered up to the attic with the other children during the siege, I wasn't watching acting; I was looking at a genuinely freaked-out toddler, and I don't even want to think about what it took to get her to react like that.
After Cop Out and Red State, it's easy to say that Kevin Smith really should hang it up. But I can only recommend that from a writing standpoint. He's at his best when penning movies about people he knows; his one attempt at horror--while noble--is an offensively boring failure. That said, I'm really impressed with the way he's grown visually on his last two features, proving to the naysayers that he's more than a two-shot hack. He just needs to attach himself to projects that aren't rooted in sub-par material.
*This is not a slam against liberals or Hollywood, but a recognition that sometimes famous progressives really are as cartoonish and clueless as the stereotype suggests. I don't know if Kevin Smith is clueless, but his film doesn't suggest any knowledge of his subject matter deeper than headline outrage.