Thursday, November 24, 2011

Red State

Red State is the latest film from Kevin Smith, the writer/director of 90's classics like ClerksChasing Amy, and Dogma. Set in an unnamed (but distinctly Texas-like) small town in the southern USA, Red State is about a familial religious cult known as the Five Points Church. The cult espouses some rather extreme interpretations of the Bible, particularly with regards to homosexuality, and has a distinctly holier-than-though type mindset. An incident early in the film results in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) being called in to raid the Church compound, and the ensuing conflict is the basis for most of the film.

As that brief plot summary indicates, Red State conflates elements from the real-life stories of the Waco siegethe Manson Family, and the Westboro Baptist Church. The film attempts to tell "both" sides of the story, intermittently showing the perspectives of the ATF force, the people of the cult, and the surrounding community. Given that kind of humanized engagement with highly controversial political topics, it seems natural to assume that Smith would use the opportunity to take a stance on the issues. At the very least you'd expect some sort of coherent message, something to give meaning to a story about belief-based hatred and killing. And I guess we sort of get that. Eventually.

In what is surely meant to be a P. T. Anderson-esque haunting monologue near the conclusion of the film, John Goodman as the head of the ATF force explains his prior actions to his superiors by stating that "People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled... But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe."

... Ok? 

This half-hearted attempt at depth fails to justify or add weight to the events of the film. It feels less like an explanation and more like an observation, and doesn't really do much to make sense of the proceedings. I'm not trying to suggest that movies have to be comprehensible as a rule. Rather it's clear that Smith is trying to take a political stance in this film, and unfortunately his writing fails to convey his position. The entire thing just feels unintentionally senseless and aimlessly political.

On that note, I can't help but feel that Red State would have been more topical around 2004 or so. "What's that you say Kevin Smith? The Patriot Act is bad? Oh, do tell me more!" Granted the topics covered in the movie are still alive in the American political landscape, but they're more like the basic context behind today's headlines. Given the fact that we're firmly entrenched in the post-Bush era, the conversation surrounding these types of issues has evolved in significant ways.

Maybe it's just that the politics don't fully resonate with me because I'm Canadian, maybe these issues really are the kinds of things keep Americans up at night. But I don't think so. I think that people have more or less gotten used to the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church is objectively evil, and that the political/corporate powers-that-be are maybe a little out of whack. With regards to that last one, I think people have not only gotten used to the fact but moreover have become fed up and started to do something about it, but I digress. That's a whole other discussion, and for now it's enough to say I don't think Red State says much that we don't already know, and says it poorly at that.

It's not that the movie is bad per se, on the contrary it's quite well made in many regards. The cinematography, lighting, special effects, and sound design are all incredible. Moreover the acting is perhaps the strongest ever featured in a Kevin Smith movie. John Goodman puts in a great performance, and Michael Parks is absolutely mesmerizing as the paternalistic cult leader. In a lot of ways Red State is the most mature thing Smith has ever produced, exhibiting real vision and control as a filmmaker.

Given all these positives it's especially tragic that the writing is so disappointing. That's usually Smith's one reliable strength, but here it's underwhelming and strictly functional. The minute-to-minute dialogue between the characters is natural and effective in driving the plot forward, but it never really adds up to anything. Nothing in the script establishes much of a perspective with the exception of the aforementioned monologue. Even there, where Smith speaks directly to the audience through Goodman's character, the closest thing we get to a message is a vague sentiment that extremism is bad in any form. Given that I suppose it's appropriate that Red State is moderate to the point of irrelevance, but that's way more cynical than I wanted to be about this movie.

(Originally published in The Weldon Times)

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