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 punchline. 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 pissed 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.
Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicolas Braun, Stephen Root, Kerry Bishe