Friday, 14 October 2011

Red State - Dir. Kevin Smith

Trailers and television spots concerning ‘Red State’ in the United Kingdom have constantly emphasized the fact that Quentin Tarantino “f**king loves this movie.” While that may be true, Kevin Smith’s latest film has proved to be a film which teeters on the see-saw of opinion: critics and writers alike either love it or hate it. But this is not only the problem with the finished product, but the film itself, it is a mix-match of contributing elements, some that work; the performance of Michael Parks and John Goodman, and others that don’t; the lack of depth in the script and the sudden transition in the narrative from an exploration of the most extreme Christian fundamentalism to an all-out fire-fight within the blink of an eye.

Jarod (Kyle Gallner), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Travis (Michael Angarano) are three typical Middle American high-school students with only two things on their mind; sex and alcohol. When an opportunity arises for the young men to use an internet website to rendezvous with an older woman named Sara (Melissa Leo) they jump at the prospect and head straight for her trailer thirty miles away in a small town called Cooper’s Dell. However, they choose the wrong woman to mess with, after passing out due to being drugged on the floor of her trailer they find themselves imprisoned within the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist Christian group whose leader is the psychopathic Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Abin Cooper, who also happens to be the father of Sara, is the leader of a small, yet faithful congregation who believe that God’s word is scripture and it is there right in this world to enforce it, but before they able to enforce their extreme religious rights upon the world, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) becomes involved as a fire-fight breaks out at the Church’s compound.

Smith’s latest outing, which is his first in the horror genre, fails because it starts rumbling but is unable to keep going the political and social commentary rolling towards an appropriate conclusion. The central theme of the film concerns the fundamentalist evangelical Christians who wish to literally wipe the sinners off the face of the Earth as they believe they themselves are doing God’s work. Their work, their protesting and their stubborn, dismissive manner is representative of the Westboro Baptist Church, who are briefly mentioned in passing both verbally and visually, but what starts out as a quite brave condemnation and examination of a group of human beings generally avoided in feature films, instead, descends quickly into a comment on the handling of events depicted in the feature by authoritarian bodies in the United States and the methods they employ. If Smith had spent more time examining the relationships and the conflicts of the small, troubling convent of seemingly mild-mannered, everyday individuals, then maybe his final mediation on the nature of evil and hatred within human beings would have had more impact than the somewhat dull and underwhelming conclusion that he instead tacks on the end of his film.

While it may initially feel like a far-cry away from Kevin Smith’s more acknowledged offerings, such as the critically acclaimed ‘Clerks’ and the films that became a part of his View Askewniverse, the lack of any depth within the script, especially during the first thirty minutes, does it at times make the audience think back to Smith’s more light-hearted contributions. Jarod, Billy-Ray and Travis are presented as three, typical teenage boys, they swear profusely, they talk about sex constantly and they enjoy drugs and alcohol and that is it. They’re supposed to be representative of today’s corrupted teenage generation and their strive for sex and alcohol through reaches of the internet, but Smith portrays such an extreme characterisation of the young men that, even when they come face-to-face with the religious fundamentalists, only a microscopic amount of empathy manages to seep through towards the audience. Yet, the film is saved by two key performances by the veteran actors Michael Parks and John Goodman.

Aside from the young men, Smith does manage to convey the dialogue for both the fundamental preacher Abin Cooper and the ageing ATF Agent Keenan perfectly. The subordinate nature of bureaucracy is rarely seen in motion pictures, especially those conveying an elaborate, action-orientated set-piece such as a fire-fight, but Smith manages to relay the situation on-screen through Goodman in a dark and incredibly dry tone. Keenan is an ‘old school’ agent, he has been there, done that and got the blood-stained t-shirt in the process, but the audience is able to observe the crisis of conscience he has with every decision the high command makes, he wants to stay no, but years of service has rendered him into somewhat of a tired, bureaucratic drone. While Parks manages to take influence from all the religiously fanatical leaders from the last thirty years and he combines the traits from their maniacal lives to create a character that on the outside exudes charisma and influence, but is deep down inside nothing more than a psychopath.

Respect and admiration should be administered towards Kevin Smith for this attempt at trying something new, instead of settling back into a genre in which he has enjoyed continued success; he has instead thrown his hat into the ring and decided to explore differing cinematic tastes to those he is used to probing. While some performances work and the basic principles of the film hold up, nothing is examined in enough depth to truly place the audience in a tantalising and endearing position of thought-provoking spectators becoming involved in a new and varied Kevin Smith experience.
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