It seems difficult to talk about a Kevin Smith film without also talking about Kevin Smith. Since his debut Clerks (1994), Smith has excelled in the art of bundling himself up with his artistic output: When Smith made Clerks, he was making a film about himself, when Smith made Chasing Amy (1997), he was making a film about something that happened to him and when Smith made Dogma (1999), he was making a very personal statement about his own religious beliefs. Aside from a habit of making very personal and autobiographical films, Smith has also been very open about the experience of making films and the experience of… well… being Kevin Smith. When Peter Biskind wanted to write a book about the dark side of Miramax, Smith was there to provide him with quotes. When the critics sharpened their knives and leapt on Jersey Girl (2004) and Cop Out (2010), Smith made it quite clear what he thought about film critics and the industry as a whole. Smith is the logical consequence of the cult of the auteur: the director who makes every detail of his life available in the hope that this might somehow make his films seem more interesting. A habitual over-sharer, tantrum-thrower and general emotional incontinent, Smith is a wonderful figure to write about and when he announced that he would fund, make and distribute Red State alone, writers could not help but write about Smith’s latest project. Which is somewhat odd given that this is arguably Smith’s least personal film to date. Red State finds Smith attempting to reboot his directorial career by moving into the thriller genre.
I adore thriller and horror films because, in my view, they come very close to being what Alfred Hitchcock once described as ‘pure cinema’. Thrillers are all about drawing upon plot, actors, dialogue, theme and cinematography to enclose the audience in a bubble of pure cinematic affect. A good thriller drags you halfway out of your seat and keeps you crouching in the darkness, because of this, thrillers frequently demand a high standard of technical filmmaking. A thriller cannot hide behind lavish special effects, celebrated performances or noble themes… it has to work as a piece of art. Despite containing some brilliantly realised elements, Red State is one of the most technically dysfunctional films that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.
Red State begins with a group of horny teenaged boys using the internet to organise a foursome with an older woman. Unbeknownst to them, the woman is in fact a member of the Five Points church, a group of fundamentalist Christians who combine Fred Phelps’ moronic hatred of GLBTs with a survivalist fondness for automatic weaponry. Caught in the act of ‘fornication’, the teenaged boys are set to be executed in accordance with the Five-Pointers’ belief that God is a being to be both feared and obeyed.
The first half of Red State draws upon three distinct elements:
The first is the banter between the three teenaged boys. Puerile, obscene and at times very funny, these sections play to Smith’s historic strengths as a writer with an ear for real-life speech patterns and an eye for particularly hideous mental images. On the page, this dialogue must have seemed brilliant but in the context of a film it seems rootless and arch as neither Smith nor the actors seem inclined to properly flesh out their characters. This sense of rootlessness pervades the entire film.
The second element is perhaps the most surprising in a Kevin Smith film as it is cinematic. In a piece republished in his collection of essays Silent Bob Speaks (2005), Smith admits that, prior to working on Jersey Girl, it had never occurred to him to tell a story using images rather than dialogue. Indeed, recent interviews with Smith have seen him describe himself as an alien to the medium of film. Though a pleasant surprise given Smith’s historical failure to spread his technical wings as a director, his decision to use shaky hand-held camerawork to communicate the panic in the minds of his teenaged characters is really nothing much to write home about. Compared to other low-budget action films such as Julian Gilbey’s A Lonely Place to Die (2010), Red State is neither well-directed nor technically accomplished. At their very best, the action sequences in Red State are competently lensed but rather than serving as focal points for the plot, Smith routinely drags the film back towards his dialogue-based comfort zone leaving his cinematic experimentations feeling isolated from the plot and decidedly gimmicky. Smith may well have learned a few cinematic tricks over the years but his refusal to entrust his film to the purely cinematic means that Red State never completely convinces either as an action movie or as a horror film. It is as though Tony Scott were shooting second-unit on a production of Clerks 3.
The third string to the film’s bow is the sermon delivered by Michael Parks’ preacher. Clocking in at just under 88 minutes, Red State is not a long film and by deciding to devote a good ten minutes of that short running time to a single sermon, Smith is placing a lot of eggs in an already crowded basket. Parks’ delivery of Smith’s material is faultless: a simmering and deranged growl of a sermon that veers unpredictably between humour, threat and bizarre sentimentality in a way that holds a dark fun house mirror up to all kinds of religious sermon. Impressive though Parks’ delivery may be, the sermon itself is underpowered due to a lack of dramatic cohesion. There is no slow-build, there is no ebb-and-flow or movement from light to dark, there is only a series of unconnected sentences which suggest that, while Smith may have an ear for dialogue, he is certainly no dramatist or speechwriter.
Also problematic is the fact that, as with Dogma, the theological component of Red State is seriously lacking in intellectual substance. While Dogma tried in earnest to engage with the challenge of retaining a faith in God despite the atrocities committed in his name, Smith clearly struggled to find much to say on the issue beyond making a spurious distinction between ‘belief’ (which is bad) and ‘having and idea’ (which is good). A similar lack of insight is evident in the film’s suggestion that, in the eyes of the fundamentalist, God is to be feared. Having presented this as the main wellspring of fundamentalism, Smith fails to unpack the concept and so fails to either capture or communicate the animating spirit that forces believers to do such terrible things. Simply stated, Kevin Smith does not understand fundamentalist Christianity and when he has to write about it, he comes across as almost unbearably glib. The same is true of Red State’s treatment of secular fundamentalism.
The second half of the film is dominated by a standoff between the Five-pointers and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms under the control of John Goodman’s character. Ostensibly a reasonable man, Goodman’s character rapidly finds himself trapped between the religious fundamentalism of the Five-pointers and the equally toxic fundamentalism of a state that orders Goodman to execute everyone in the compound. Forced to choose between killing a load of children in a frontal assault on the compound and disobeying a direct order, Goodman represents the (supposedly) tolerant middle ground of American politics that is being squeezed out of existence by the vocal extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. By placing Goodman’s character in a position where he has to negotiate what is effectively a standoff between Church and State, Red State is clearly trying to engage with what Smith sees as a real political problem facing contemporary American society.
As with the treatment of religious fundamentalism, Smith’s engagement with secular fundamentalism is glib and insubstantial. To begin with, while the Five-pointers represent right wing Christianity, it is not at all clear who the ATF are supposed to be… many of the highest-ranking officials in America are right wing fundamentalist Christians and while Smith’s model of an aggressively secular state might well bear a loose resemblance to the politics of late 19th-century France, his depiction of America’s left as a group of violent secular fundamentalists devoted to an absolutist state seems naïve to the point of actual ignorance. Surely a political allegory should bear some resemblance to real-world politics? As with Dogma, Smith’s lack of insight into the subject matter of his own film fatally undermines what should have been a powerful satire of contemporary American politics.
Part of the problem is that, while Red State is a film about the battlefield of ideas, it struggles to find an intellectual conflict worth dramatizing. The film’s lack of a an idea to ground the narrative is evident in the handling of John Goodman’s character for while that character is clearly supposed to be the moral centre of the film, Smith never actually bothers to have him engage with any of the film’s issues. Instead of finding a way through the problem, Goodman’s character stomps around a barn until a convenient deus ex machina turns up to resolve the plot.
Smith’s failure to grasp a coherent set of ideas is also evident in Red State’s startling lack of dramatic structure. The film begins by introducing us to a load of teenaged boys and we assume that these are the viewpoint characters. However, before long, Smith is killing these characters off. As the film progresses, Smith picks up and casts aside a number of potential protagonists without ever fully committing to or expanding upon their worldviews. This means that, while Red State is clearly trying to make an argument, the film never manages to engage our sympathies and draw them into a particular way of seeing the world. Of course, a lack of single viewpoint character need not prove fatal if the point of the exercise is to survey a number of different worldviews but by refusing to allow its characters to interact in meaningful ways, Red State never shows us how the various ideas fit together. This is a film of monologues, not of exchanged ideas.
Dramatically stunted, technically directionless and intellectually incoherent, Red State is a complete and utter mess. Not only does this film fail to make a coherent argument, it also fails to tell a coherent story. While the individual components of the mess may be interesting and even (at times) compelling, there is no escaping the fact that this is one of the most poorly directed films to reach British cinema screens this year. Though Smith has never possessed much technical talent or intellectual heft, his films nonetheless used to tell real stories about real characters, qualities sorely lacking in a film that was supposed to reboot its director’s career. Far from heralding the arrival of Kevin Smith 2.0, Red State merely reminds us of how sick and misguided Kevin Smith 1.0 could be.