Red State (2011)

Kevin Smiths' "Red State" sat in my mental queue for a long time. Copies had leaked on the various inter-webs months ago. Even as Smith was traversing the country charging 50 bucks a pop to view his new horror flick, I just couldn't bring myself to watch it. As lover of Smiths films, there is something about this entry into his catalog that didn't feel right. Sure Smith had tried to step outside of his self-created ""View Askewniverse" before, with varying results, but I had been more than willing to take that leap with him and see the positives in films like "Jersey Girl" and (the incomprehensible) "Cop Out." This just felt different to me. Even after watching it, I sat on my feelings for a week, hoping something about the way I was feeling would change. Unfortunately it didn't. After waiting seven days, I still can't escape the fact that there is only one word to describe the film - boring.

The film opens with a very typical Smith scenario - three guys trolling the internet looking to get laid. They find their potential prey in Sara, a lonely, white trash woman living in a trailer park. She feeds them some drugged beers and the boys pass out. When they awake, they realize their night of potential ecstasy has taken a wrong turn. The boys have fallen into the clutches of Abin Cooper, religious zealot, government separatist, and cult leader. Coopers main goal seems to be luring sinful young men with the promise of sex and disposing of them through various nefarious means. It's his twisted way of cleansing the world one sinner at a time. With the boys missing, local law enforcement begins sniffing around the compound. The sheriff runs a foul of one of the cultists and is on the losing end of a fire fight. Eventually, one of the boys manages to escape setting off a fire fight between the cult and the ATF agents who have gathered outside the compound following the sheriffs killing. The ATF, led by John Goodman (who's great in this role), manage to subdue the cultists with some unintentional help from a group of college kids looking to fuck with the cult.

One of the biggest questions after the movie is over and the credits start to roll is "Does Kevin Smith know what a horror movie is?" He certainly knows funny. Even the most jaded movie goer will at least hasten a chuckle during "Clerks." But at no point during "Red State" is their anything even approaching a horrific moment. Sure their are disturbing images, some foul language and lots of killing, but it never comes together like a "horror" film should.

Part of that has to be tied to the fact that the antagonist in the film, Abin Cooper, is never once a threat. To say Michael Parks' performance is subdued would be a huge understatement. Cooper has more in common with Santa Claus than David Koresch or Fred Phelps. He is presented as a guy that is in full control, with a clear mind and clear goals. Maybe this is Smiths way of making a comment about "the Devil you know." But having the antagonist of a film be so nonthreatening leads to a boring film. Parks at one point delivers a near 15 minute sermon while one of the boys is confined to an animal cage in the back of the church, and despite the language Parks uses there is no sense of dread or foreboding. Parks voice barely rises above a whisper while admonishing his followers and reviling the world around him. Again its a subtle performance, but subtle doesn't really work in these types of films.

The other question that permeates the film is: "Does Kevin Smith even like horror films?" Clearly he's seen some. The ATFs siege of the house was ripped from "The Devils Rejects." The runaway kid racing through underground catacombs could come from any number of late 70's post Texas Chain Saw Massacre films. But does Smith understand what makes them scary? I really don't think so. Horror is not just about the dialogue and the words you use. Horror is more about creating an atmosphere and dread. It's about creating an uneasiness about what could happen next. This film never does that.

That being said, the movie does deliver on a number of points. The dialogue, as expected, is great. Despite his short comings as a director, Smith is nothing if not a very good writer. Parks' performance as Cooper is very good. It's just not right for this film. John Goodman is tremendous as the lead ATF agent who is caught between obligation and doing what he thinks is right. I also sensed his vulnerability when it came to confronting whether or not Cooper could be right. The rest of the cast is rather faceless but adequate. Their are some talented actors in the film (I'm thinking of Melissa Leo in particular) that get kind of lost because Smith falls in love with Parks' character at times.

Good performances and strong writing do not make up for the fact that its just not a strong horror film. See it if you are a Kevin Smith fanboy (like myself) or want your horror with a lot of bark but less bite.

** stars out of *****

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