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Ten Word or Less Review: Kevin Smith actually tries.  Doesn’t actually succeed.

If one word has come to embody the directorial output of Kevin Smith over the last few years it would have to be lazy. Really lazy.  His over reliance on trademarked characters, routine plotting and inside nerd jokes had backed him into a creative corner, slamming into rock bottom at full force with Cop Out, a movie so bad it makes you want to break things.  Smith decided to respond to his growing army of detractors by creating Red State, an unorthodox and ambitious drama about religious zealots kidnapping teens with an eye to murder them for their sinful ways and a subsequent standoff with the United States government.  It is ambitious subject matter for a guy whose staples include sex jokes and Star Wars references.  Despite the honorable try, Smith blunders things up too much to give the movie a pass.  Red State has a promising setup and some quality to note, but falls pretty far of its abundant potential.

Red State starts by introducing us to three teenagers who think they are getting into the plot of an old Kevin Smith movie.  They are on a quest to get laid.  The leader of the trio has been using the internet in hopes of finding a skanky woman who will bed the three of them and end their agonizing virginity.  They find a backwoods, trailer trash gal (Melissa Leo) who makes an offer they can’t refuse, all three at once, but instead drugs them.  They wake up in the clutches of the deranged Reverend Cooper (Michael Cooper), an apocalyptic preacher who denounces gays, African Americans and pretty much everyone by default.  Cooper has taken his hatred of American immorality to the next level, murder.  Cooper kills a homosexual and plans to kill the three teens, then everything begins to spiral out of control, eventually elevating into a bloody standoff with government agents, headed by one Agent Keenan (John Goodman).

As Red State’s plot builds with more and more potential Smith can’t help but let more and more air out of the bag.  He can’t get his big ideas off the ground long enough to make us think about them.  His first gaffe is settling on no real protagonist, something the film desperately needs.  The three teens that start the film are too inconsequential and Smith doesn’t make a point to flesh them out or draw in sympathy towards their plight.  Michael Parks is grand and showy as the hate vomiting Cooper and he’s the closest thing to a lead Red State provides, but he’s not any kind of emotional anchor for the story.  He is a deranged hate monger who certainly grabs our attention, but there’s no arc for the guy to follow.  Goodman’s role is also underserved.  As the head of the strike force told to take over the compound and eliminate the residents, he gets a conflict to deal with, children in the building, but no pay off because Smith’s script keeps cutting itself short.

Smith the director shows a lot of improvement here but Red State’s slow undoing lays at the hands of Smith the writer.  As his first cinematic exercise away from his comfort zone Red State is an ambitious experiment that feels half formed.  He’s tackling extreme rightwing insanity as well as heartless government recklessness and none of it culminates in a satisfying way.  The aforementioned lack of a solid central character keeps cropping into thought because as soon as you think you’ve settled on someone to follow through the chaos, Smith kills them.  Red State has a devil may care attitude towards its characters which renders everyone equally inconsequential.  Every time a plot thread starts to gain the slightest momentum the character involved gets disposed of via bullet.  Smith has tons of dramatic threads working here but he seems too fixated on wrapping things up just as they’re about to get going.  The movie runs a scant 90 minutes.  Bit by bit the movie keeps promising things it refuses to deliver, deflating little by little.  At the 11th hour Smith suddenly seems like he’s been pushing us towards something amazing that we never saw coming.  There’s suddenly the potential to complete one of the great cinematic Hail Mary passes.  Had he had the balls to follow through with it, I’d have applauded its ambition and forgiven its sins, but it doesn’t happen and Smith wraps things up with a bit of monolog that quietly makes his point and the story is over.  Blah.

As much as I deride Smith in general and as much as I think Red State is a thorough misfire, it shows us that he is capable of something more.  He is an intelligent, funny and clever dude and he clearly has something to say about things besides comical adult relationships wrapped around dick and fart jokes.  I’d quote Obi-Wan Kenobi at him if I could, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”  But as Smith has already made clear his intention to soon retire from directing, Red State feels all the more depressing.  It’s sad to see this untapped potential begin to eek out only to see it go unfulfilled.  And why is he retiring?  So he can do more podcast and write more comic books.  I feel inclined to quote another beloved Lucas movie at the moment, “You left just as you were becoming interesting.”


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