Sundance 2011 Review: RED STATE
Kevin Smith's hotly anticipated horror film, RED STATE, has finally debuted. The story of three teens who find themselves in the clutches of an extreme fundamentalist religious group is easily identifiable as a Kevin Smith film with extended scenes of quick banter. Beyond that, though, Smith has managed to introduce a certain amount of freshness in his filmography via some interesting direction and a level of suspense and action not present in his previous films. The end result, though, is a better-than-average horror film marred by lengthy, steam-stealing periods of dialog and thinly veiled social criticism. This is frustrating as there is a potentially very good movie hiding here.
RED STATE does not waste any time diving into exposition. The first scene takes place in a classroom where a teacher is explaining constitutional rights to her students. One young man arrives late having been slowed down due to a protest by the radical Five Points Church. Of course one student in the room has never heard of the church so the teacher explains they are a fundamentalist group led by Abin Cooper (the ever reliable Michael Parks) and proceeds to tie this in with the freedom of speech lesson. A group of three horny students from this class decide to go out to the township that houses the church, Cooper's Dell, to meet up with a prostitute advertising online. When they arrive, though, they quickly find out they have been lured into a trap and have become part of a lesson for the churchgoers including Abin's own daughter Sarah (Melissa Leo).
Up to this point in the movie there's been a good balance of the Kevin Smith we know and (sometimes) love, and the Kevin Smith that wants to make a serious horror movie. Early scenes have the three teen leads talking about the filthy things they will do when they get their hands on the woman in Cooper's Dell. Once they are on the dark road and figure out things are amiss, there's an air of creepiness that makes one hopeful for the rest of the film. However, it is after one of the best moments in the movie (an extremely effective scene shot from inside a covered cage) that the first wall is hit. Our introduction to the Reverend Cooper and his flock is via an extremely long, tedious sermon. There will be several more instances of this problem of the film coming to a grinding halt for extended scenes of dialog.
From here, things begin to escalate as the sermon turns deadly, our captive teens are desperate to survive and the ATF led by a sharp John Goodman is called in. The film drags with exposition once more with Goodman's introduction. Though it's well acted, the scene is mainly Goodman talking into a Bluetooth headset, explaining the church, its history, and why the ATF has an interested in them. The ATF, though, is quick to descend upon the compound. This is where the film is best, during the initial standout between the ATF and the Five Points Church. Smith has never been known for his directing chops but there are several scenes in the mid-section of the film that are impressively staged. For a while, again, one has hope that things will ride the intensity to the finish. However, two concurrent and intertwined subplots (one inside the Four Points compound and one outside) develop that make it necessary for Smith to stop the action for more scenes of dialog that simply lack the snap needed to justify their length. It's this escalation, wall-hitting back-and-forth that makes the film ultimately frustrating.
There is a very good movie hiding inside RED STATE, even when annoyance sets in at the scattershot pacing, Smith seems to have a great surprise up his sleeve each time to get the movie rolling again. In fact, there are several standout moments, enough that it would be hard to write this off as a complete failure. Cohesiveness is not the film's strong point, though. As the situation builds in intensity and violence, the film plows towards a rather brilliant point where the film can go in two directions. Both directions have their pros and cons and it seems likely most will agree that the way RED STATE ends up has far more things going against it than for it.
The major problem with RED STATE is simple- Kevin Smith is incapable of dampening his ego long enough to pull off a straightforward horror film. He simply must make a statement, take his jabs at church and state alike. If things weren't so on the nose, though, if subtlety had been employed at any time during the scripting process, these critiques would be easier to swallow. The horrific and tense moments are there already, they should have been let loose in their own dark world, free of any surface level examination of the hypocrisy of extremism, devoid of moments of audience-demeaning exposition. Instead, Smith can't rely on the audience to see things such as the parallels between the Five Points Church and the real-life Westboro Baptist Church, he has to have someone actually spell them out in the film. Of course, maybe it is we the audience who should be blamed, going in we've already ignored the high school level multiple entendre of the title RED STATE.