I’m a fan of Kevin Smith, and that’s a loaded statement since I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a fan of Kevin Smith’s movies. Mallrats left me unfulfilled for example, and I found Clerks inferior to its own sequel. Dogma? Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back? Not bad-B Plus-”have their moments” movies.That’s not the popular opinion, but these movies are so divisive among fans of indie films that I can guarantee my views aren’t the most controversial of any given reviewer. But as for the man, Smith himself, his popularity never seems to waver, no matter the weather. As testament, he has even founded his own shit-talk Podcast, Smodcast, in the style of the Ricky Gervais show. While the Gervais Podcast thrives on cleverness, Smith’s miraculously runs on the fact that he is a down to earth, likable dude. The same factor can be said to fuel quite a few of his movies.
At some point, Smith must have recognized this. Why else would he shrug off his old “go-to’s,” Jay and Silent Bob (played by Smith himself and Jason Mewes, a pair of Gen-X stoners that appear in roles of varying prominence in most of Smith’s early films) as well as all of the sentimental cuteness of his earlier movies to head in the black blooded direction of “Red State?”
“I got tired of making ‘Kevin Smith movies.’” Smith said. “Like most people got tired of seeing them.”
So Red State. Smith was clear about his influences in making this film from the beginning. He wanted to handle his subject matter-a fictional incarnation of the Westboro Baptist Church-imagined as a clan of serial murderers the way that the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino might, combining comedy, drama, and exploitive levels of violence via jarring tone shifts and suspense.
It sounds like a solid plan, and for the most part Red State delivers all that one expects from a film that begins with “The Harvey Boys Present.” It’s heavy on the drama, light on the comedy, and completely divorced from anything that Smith has done before. It resonates like the films of Smith’s icons, more Coens than Quentin, but sometimes the similarities straddle the line between homage and plagiarism. A monologue by John Goodman (who carries his weight-no pun-as a scrappy ATF agent) near the end of the film is so obviously lifted from Cormac McCarthy’s poetic resolution of No Country for Old Men that it’s a little off putting. In the Coen’s No Country, Tommy Lee Jones’ words are as frustrating as they are fascinating. In Red State, the speech lands with an audible clunk. Smith pitched this movie alongside “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” an admitted photocopy of the Judd Apatow formula. The implications aren’t flattering for Silent Bob.
That aside, for “a nasty ass $4 Mil horror flick with few (if any) redeeming characters,” Red State is good eats. Two defected members of the Westboro Baptist Church actually congratulated Smith on his portrayal of life on the inside, and Michael Parks is positively chilling in the role of Abin Cooper, the church’s sociopathic figurehead with one eye always fixed upon the apocalypse. Flawlessly he alternates between the mad man, seeming half possessed, walking about as though in a trance, singing hymns and muttering passages from scripture, and the leader, the charismatic man who runs his family like a congregation turned military regiment.
This is a movie that embraces a non-traditional method of storytelling, not clearly identifying any character as protagonist, (at least not until midway through the film) which may frustrate viewers more accustomed to more mainstream, “verse-chorus-verse” movies. The break from tradition is to be applauded though, even if it has been sloppily copied from someone else’s playbook. “Red State” was an experiment worth performing and it’s a movie worth seeing, but does it deserve a spot in the pantheon of the films it seeks to emulate? Well… probably not quite.
On a side note, enough has been said elsewhere about the controversy stirred up by the film, so I’ve omitted that topic from this review since it’s my personal opinion that the Westboro Baptist Church draws the majority of their power from the attention we grant them.