Today: March 2, 2024
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Red State

About halfway through Sam Peckinpah’s masterful, melancholic elegy to the death of the West, Ride The High Country, two characters, a morally upright gunfighter (Joel McCrea) and a tyrannical religious zealot (R.G. Armstrong), verbally spar, trading Bible quotations like bullets over the fate of the zealot’s daughter whose life he rules with an iron fist.

About
halfway through Sam Peckinpah’s masterful, melancholic elegy to the death of
the West, Ride The High Country, two characters, a morally upright gunfighter
(Joel McCrea) and a tyrannical religious zealot (R.G. Armstrong), verbally
spar, trading Bible quotations like bullets over the fate of the zealot’s
daughter whose life he rules with an iron fist. Each man twists the words of Scripture to their own ends, to
support their own argument. The
scene is a subtle, almost playful, dissection of religious and moral
intolerance and tells us everything we need to know about both characters,
their outlook on life and their moral compass, with the bigoted father proving
to have feet of clay in the face of the steadfast, learned, reasoned McCrea’s argument. For all it’s talk (and talk and talk
and talk) about religion and belief, there’s no scene in Red State as
intelligent or subtle as this one scene, no dialogue as sharp, and the
tyrannical Jesus junkie ranting at the centre of the film badly needs his own
Joel McCrea to meet him on an even playing field and deflate his
arguments. Unfortunately, instead
of McCrea we get John Goodman’s sad-sack Fed and a gang of disposable teens.

Three horny, lunkheaded teenage boys, lets call
them Numpty 1, Numpty 2 and Numpty 3 (Michael
Angarano, Kyle Gallner
& Nicolas Braun), lured
by the online promise of a gangbang with a swinging MILF (Melissa Leo), find themselves drugged and delivered into the
clutches of her demented father, Bible-bashing Christian
extremist, Pastor Abin Cooper (Tarantino favourite Michael Parks) who likes to punctuate his sermons to his ecstatic
congregation of extended family members by executing a few ‘sexual deviants’
(homosexuals, horny lunkheaded teenagers, anyone who does it with the lights
on). Waking up in cages, Numpties
1 through 3 are subjected to a lengthy harangue about the torment, agony and
Hellfire that awaits their horny souls and are just about to be wrapped in
clingfilm and offed when Federal agent Keenan (John Goodman) and the ATF roll up to the gates of Cooper’s heavily
fortified compound, kicking off a violent, bloody siege as the faithful break
out the automatic weapons and start capping Feds while waiting for the Rapture.

After 15 years of laid-back slacker/stoner comedies
like Clerks and Mallrats and still smarting from the financial and critical
disappointments of Zack And Miri Make A
Porno
and Cop Out, Southwest
Airlines’ favourite passenger Kevin
Smith
decided that he was going to make a like, totally bitchin’ horror
movie dude, something out of character, something a bit dangerous, a bit
transgressive. Something that
makes a statement about religious hypocrisy and contemporary American politics
and culture. It’s a shame then
that Red State is basically Jay and Silent Bob meets Hostel.

Smith flirts with some pretty rich meat;
filtering through his jaundiced eye the ATF’s tragic mishandling of the Waco
siege, the Westboro Baptist Church, its God Hates Fags campaign and the rise of
Right-wing Christian extremism and Apocalyptic beliefs. But as with all his films, Red State lacks focus. It’s flabby, talky, too much time is
spent listening to Parks preach about the evils of America, not enough time is
spent getting to know the characters.
When the Numpties and the God-botherers start to die, it’s hard to
care. We don’t know them or like
them and it’s pretty obvious that Kevin Smith doesn’t know them or like
them. He’s content for his
characters to be faceless identikit stereotypes. Why should we care when they get shot in the face? Smith
doesn’t. In fact, he repeatedly
uses shooting his characters in the face as a bad joke punch-line. Smith can’t help but be Smith; he’s
never bothered to learn how to write a story, how to create believable,
sympathetic characters, how to build suspense or how not to overwrite his
dialogue. Why should he? He’s never had to before. In Smith’s Askewniverse, there’s no
situation or plot-hole that can’t be sorted out with a well-placed vulgarity, a
Star Wars reference or the intervention of the slacker Deus Ex Machina that is
Jay and Silent Bob. Like Smith
himself, his characters talk and talk and talk and never say anything of any
real consequence.

And for a film that makes a point of
highlighting the dangers of anti-gay hate crime, Red State is just a little, well, homophobic. It’s full
of Smith’s customary mix of homoerotic curiosity and his fear of alternate
lifestyles that are so often the butt (sorry) of his jokes. There is only one significant gay
character (Stephen Root) and just as
he’s shaping up to be interesting, complex and conflicted, he’s revealed to be
a useless douche. He’s also one of
the characters whose death is a throwaway gag. Another gay man is a mute, bound victim, denied both voice
and humanity, who serves to signpost the Numpties fate. And doesn’t it seem a little odd that a
religious group that hates and murders homosexuals would set such an elaborate
trap for three heterosexual teenage boys?
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make the teenagers gay? It’s almost as if Smith lost his bottle
at the last minute, changed his mind and made the characters straight.

The actors make the best of the material and
their performances, for the most part, are good. Though I did want to see Braun bite the big one. Parks is chilling as the psychotic,
down-home cult leader, obviously relishing his almost Satanic role. Melissa Leo’s fervent cultist chews the
scenery enthusiastically, Kerry Bishe
as Leo’s daughter and Kyle Gallner as Numpty 2 are sympathetic and doomed while
John Goodman’s hangdog, disillusioned Fed reminds just you how good an actor he
is.

Having p*ssed off the world’s critics, producers
and distributors, not to mention even his forgiving audience, before petulantly
declaring that he’s probably going to give up filmmaking after his next film
(or maybe the next one after that), Smith can at least be thankful that Cop Out is no longer his worst
film.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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