Kevin Smith’s personality now looms so large that it can seem inextricable from the films he produces, that buying into his on-screen work means also buying into Team View Askew. Smith has proven himself a mighty wielder of his own personal brand, using podcasts, his Twitter feed, his website, his speaking tours to cement a dedicated fanbase that “gets it,” that gets him. Which is why, I’ve always imagined, he takes criticism of his movies so poorly and can’t help but see it as personal — disliking his work has somehow become tantamount to disliking him, even if that work is a for-hire buddy cop comedy whose stars appear to find it painful to be in the same shot.
With the circus that was the Sundance “Red State” premiere, culminating in Smith telling the distributors in the audience that he can and plans to do a better job releasing his movie than they would have (something I don’t necessarily disagree with), and the director’s earlier campaign, post-“Cop Out,” against critics, Smith has ensured a lot of people don’t like him right now, which will make it all the easier to write them off as biased. So let me just get this out there: There are a lot of lovely, very nice people who’ve made lousy movies, and vice versa. If “Red State” were good, it’d hardly be the first time an asshole had turned out a worthy work of art or entertainment. It’s not good. It’s not a complete write-off, but it is bruisingly heavy-handed, poorly paced and messy, dealing in such nasty, over-the-top caricatures of religious extremists and whatever-means-necessary law enforcement that whatever point it tries for about the increasingly fiery, violence-ready state of our nation ends up seeming glib and juvenile.
The good, or at least the interesting, is the way that “Red State” shifts its emphasis over its different acts, forcing several times a reevaluation of who, if anyone, the hero might be. The film finds Smith getting away from the static shots that have defined his visual style, trying out different angles and more frenetic, occasionally “Bourne”esque camerawork and editing, which are better suited to the subject matter if sometimes distracting. And Michael Parks, as the head of the Westboro Baptist Church-inspired Five Points group that forms “Red State”‘s deadly center, gives a memorably clammy performance.
But for a film that tackles such ripe, relevant subject matter, “Red State” sets up and then knocks down incredibly easy targets. The members of the Five Points Church are, with few exceptions, hammy one-note monsters, the film stopping dead early on for Parks’ character to spew a long, circuitous hate speech-filled sermon while the congregation, which includes children and knitting woman, chime in their agreement. Later, the group matriarch (played by Melissa Leo) extols a girl to get herself together, pray for forgiveness, then retrieve her gun and join her family in shooting at the ATF “like a good Christian.” (An ATF higher-up gets a similarly flip line later in the film, justifying an action with a “Patriot act, bitch.”)
The film shifts from teen comedy (the beginning, in which three high school boys try to get laid, has the most typically Smith-like dialogue) to gothic horror to overwrought action to topical satire without any sense of control or intent. Is the Five Points Church scary? Ostensibly, since they kill people and stuff. But I find Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, who were, as promised, protesting outside, far scarier. They, presumably, arrived at their extreme stance through some kind of process of belief and crazed logic, instead of just being drawn that way. And they, like Mr. Smith, know how to goad the press to their own ends.
“Red State” will be self-distributed by Smith through SModcast Pictures on October 19th.