Sunday, December 11, 2011

Red State

Grade: 29 (C-)

Horror is a genre for formalists. Directors with some knowledge of how to create atmosphere with a camera are encouraged to apply; all others best not. So it’s puzzling to hear that Kevin Smith, writer-director of Clerks and Dogma, has eschewed his raunchy comedy formula in favor of a horror movie of sorts. Smith’s movies are often funny, but his skills lie in writing. His filmmaking is pedestrian, at best. Red State is the first film Smith has tried to make a real act of filmmaking rather than a bunch of conversations. What’s more, it’s a violent horror film with an antagonist based on Fred Phelps of the notoriously homophobic and hateful Westboro Baptist Church. It is, in short, an ambitious departure for Smith. It doesn’t succeed in the least, but it’s hard to blame him for trying.

Three teens (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) seek out an older woman online for sex. They find Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo), who wants to take all of them at the same time. Or so she says. When they arrive, they are drugged and kidnapped by Sarah’s family. Sarah, it turns out, is a member of the Five Points Church, a homophobic church known for protesting the funerals of soldiers and homosexuals. Their leader, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), does more than preach, it turns out. The Coopers are also gun nuts, and they have taken on a new interest: torturing and killing any “fornicators” and other “offenders of God”. But when the group slips up, the ATF gets involved, and it’s up to ATF Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman) to save the day.

Smith goes for a gritty grindhouse feel, but the film’s dirty look mostly just looks amateurish. The film’s first third is like a greatly condensed version of Eli Roth’s superior Hostel. Smith rushes everything, from the introduction of the Westboro stand-ins (whose existence is explained in a painful exposition scene in a classroom), the section with the horndog teens (none of whom are distinguishable as characters), to the big reveal that not everything is what it seems. It’s difficult to build suspense when it’s impossible to get a handle on any situation, and it’s even harder when Parks (who, on his own, is quite good) delivers a rambling, endless sermon on the hideous nature of the world. It’s easy to see the character deliver the monologue, and it’s very convincing. It also grinds the movie to a dead halt.

There lies one of Smith’s greatest flaws: he’s a very writerly writer; his dialogue draws attention to itself. An aid to his comedies (mostly), it’s a gigantic hindrance here. Smith has never been gifted when it comes to cutting his own lines, and it’s particularly problematic here. Every overwritten line is kept in, leading to a talky, preachy film. It doesn’t get better at the end, when the ATF and the Coopers get into an endless gunfight broken up by long scenes of characters sorting out their moral dilemmas. Horror movies often deal with social issues well. Points to Kevin Smith for trying. Points deducted for execution.

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