Kevin Smith is a legend of independent cinema. I know it. You know it. The programmers at the Sundance Film Festival are happy to acknowledge it before each and every one of his screenings. And it’s true. He is a director who has changed the face of independent film. Not single-handedly, of course; he had plenty of help, but he has certainly been a major contributor. Before Kevin Smith, would you have ever been willing to pay Blockbuster $3.50 for a single night with a black-and-white VHS home movie about two convenient store clerks who don’t like to work? Of course not. But Clerks was a game changer. Suddenly, to the truly hip moviegoer, budget didn’t matter half as much as originality. Screening Clerks (or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) for a roomful of naïve friends in 1995 was like introducing a boring lover to a new sexual position.
Since then, Smith has churned out some awfully inconsistent product, and yet his rabid fan base continues to defend his every move. Personally, I like Smith’s movies. Maybe his earlier stuff more than his recent work, but still. I’ve grown up with him, cinematically speaking. A lot of us have. And we’ve also learned that––like the witty high school quarterback who chokes during big games––the effusive, fan-loving Smith has been known to stumble creatively.
Which brings us to Red State, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. His most recent film is ostensibly a story about the Westboro Baptists––real-life anti-gay religious fanatics who protest at the funerals of soldiers––and their batshit crazy leader, Fred Phelps. Kevin Smith serves up a fictional substitute for Phelps in the form of Aden Cooper (Michael Parks; From Dusk Til Dawn), an anti-gay extremist behind the creepily fervent Five Points Trinity Church.
A trio of horny teens, lured deep into the country by the internet promise of a possible gang bang, stumble into a trap laid by Aden Cooper, who drags them to his compound to display in front of his congregation. Cooper proceeds to preach to his followers, and Kevin Smith is happy to devote the next 20 minutes of the film to the man’s rhetoric––“God doesn’t love you unless you fear him!”––and initially, the crazily charismatic preacher appears to be the primary focus of Red State.
But apparently Smith has never met a half-developed subplot he didn’t want to somehow utilize, and soon a parade of minor characters ooze their way into the narrative. There’s a closeted gay Sheriff played by Stephen Root, whose roadside blowjob inadvertently leads the ATF to Cooper’s front door. There’s John Goodman, the ATF agent in charge of the raid, a man conflicted over the methods he’s required to use when invading Aden Cooper’s compound. There’s another ATF agent who bickers with Goodman, and a daughter of Cooper’s that just wants to escape the compound with the babies, and those horny teens are still trying to escape, so don’t forget about them. There’s a lot going on here; a little horror, a little preachin’, a sprinkling of politics, some uber-loud gunplay. For the most part, the film is simply unfocused. There are pieces of three or four other good movies to be found in Red State, but the parts never congeal into an entertaining feature.
As is the case with most of Smith’s films, it’s over-written and under-directed, and his repeated attempts to make a point about “the dark heart of America” leech any fun out of his usually witty dialogue. Smith has stated that he intends to take the film on a roadshow tour to various theaters across the country. With Mallrats, with its cleverly obscene dialogue and hilariously inept action scenes, a plan like that might have worked. But Red State is no Mallrats.
Red State isn‘t particularly fun to watch with a group. In fact, it‘s not particularly fun at all. Perhaps if the horror aspects had been more prominent, instead of repeatedly shoved to the background in favor of heavy wads of dialogue, Smith would have had a future cult hit on his hands. As the end credits rolled, the girl sitting behind me in the theater said, “Not awful…but dull.” That nails it. In well under 140 characters.