“Red State” (2011)

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★★★½☆

First, let me say that I dig Kevin Smith. “Dogma” was one of the most brilliant things ever put on film and his concert films are epic. He’s kind of like the anti-Belichick on stage, he spends an hour answering one question and in the process gives you his life story.

“Red State” is his new political-social-horror flick and it’s tough for me to give it only 3.5 stars. Tough because it’s a film that needed to be made. Tough because I see where he was trying to go. And tough because . . . I dig Kevin Smith. If there was one word that summed up my rating it would be: “uneven.”

OK. So in a nutshell this one is about one of those hardcore Christian fundamentalist churches – you know: “praise the Lord and the ammunition”. They think homosexuals are the tool of the devil, aren’t really people, and therefore aren’t covered by that annoying “thou shalt not kill” clause. Bad news for them is one of their little “ceremonies” goes wrong right when the ATF shows up to execute a search for illegal firearms. Headquarters orders everyone in the house killed as they’re now classified as terrorists.

Not a bad story. The writing and dialog is good. There are a few gaps here or there, or places where it would have helped to spend more time. But in general it’s all believable. The beginning, where the fundamentalists lure boys with ads for sex on the Internet so they can be punished for their sins, is well done and suitably ironic. The reveal at the end, where Goodman is explaining some of what happened during the assault on the compound to his superiors, is classic Kevin Smith concert dialog – there’s that subtle, charming, matter-of-fact way of describing incredible events that is gold.

The casting is pretty good. John Goodman is great as the leader of the ATF group who must attack the “Five Points” (the name of the church) compound. It’s interesting seeing him in this kind of role. Michael Parks as the leader of the “Five Points Church” is only “ok”, though. What bothered me was most of these kinds of guys have a weird charisma that gets people to follow them – to absolutely believe in what they’re preaching. Parks didn’t convey that. He also didn’t really convey a menacing persona in some of his dialog. What he was saying was evil and well written, but it just didn’t sound right as he acted it. Maybe that was Smith’s intention – to make him seem and sound “ordinary” – but from a dramatic standpoint you wanted this guy to be Hannibal Lecter with a bible. Stephen Root and Kevin Pollack add an interesting bit of panache to the cast, and the three young actors who play the kids who wander into the wrong place do a very good job. But casting Parks is one example of the “unevenness” of the film. Because he’s kind of a weak bad guy, it throws everything else kind of off.

The direction is adequate – again: uneven. The jump-cuts during sermons or scenes of high tension are distracting and the expressions of the cast which get captured add little. For instance, when Parks is giving his sermon just before killing someone, there are these jump-cuts and one is to a couple in the congregation holding hands. It would have been more effective if they showed this when Parks was getting to the part about “thou shalt not kill” and lingered on them – show their excitement about what they were about to do because they are, after all, true believers – they’re about to kill someone in the name of God. If you really think about the humanity of it, the whole room would be building to a crescendo of ritual murder, but it came off as matter-of-fact as killing a Thanksgiving turkey.

The action scenes are well-shot. Not over the top and mostly believable. Though having a lone ATF agent cover the back of the compound and then handle a fleeing person right out in the open where he can be (and shortly was) shot is not procedure. There was no sniper in the assault team – which is unlikely. They didn’t wait for a helicopter to recon the compound – or do any kind of ground recon – before breaching the gate. Goodman picking someone off a roof at over 50 feet with a head-shot from an MP5 is a bit of a stretch. The compound had all these guns but they had no charges set in case of a breach. These are minor technical glitches, of course, and I guess there were more than I first realized. A director of action movies would have got these things right.

I’d be curious what was left on the editing floor. The whole conflict between Goodman and his superiors about killing everyone in the house is treated as almost peripheral until the very end of the movie. “Peripheral” may not be the right word – but given the title of the film, it should have been as central a theme as the religious fundamentalist angle. Adding maybe five minutes to show the ATF agents struggling with why they’re even shooting the people who are unarmed would have helped. Adding a few more minutes to show Parks manipulating his flock or the locals would have also helped. Adding a few more minutes to Goodman’s debriefing to really delve into just what’s being done in the name of the Patriot Act would have really helped.

It’s like, all the pieces were there, and you can kind of tell what Smith wanted to say, but some of the really important stuff – the stuff people really need to be aware is happening around them – that goes by too quick. It feels rushed, and with this subject matter you want people to have time to think about what they just experienced. Just adding a couple extra seconds of awkward silence when Goodman’s superiors reveal their plans for the detainees would have made a difference.

Even the title, “Red State,” doesn’t quite match the movie. Is it “Red State” because of the fundamentalists being able to quite literally get away with murder because it’s in the name of God? Is it “Red State” because of how the ATF declares these US citizens as terrorists and then handles them accordingly? Is it “Red State” because this stuff’s really been happening for a decade and no one seems to notice? Is it all of the above?

Then again, maybe I’m reading too much into things. Having grown up on movies like “Three Days of the Condor” I guess my bar is set kind of high. Maybe Smith didn’t have a message and I’m responding to my own feelings on these issues. Anyway . . .

I saw this one online and I think that’s how they’re releasing it. It’s worth watching. I wouldn’t say this is Kevin Smith’s best film ever. Or even his most ambitious – maybe second most ambitious. But it’s a movie with some meat on it and some balls. I’m sure some parts of the country  will absolutely hate him for making this movie, so he must be doing something right.