There is an exchange of dialogue midway through Kevin Smith’s Red State that tidily sums up everything that Smith is trying, and failing, to do with this, his first non-comedic venture. John Goodman’s ATF agent is joined by fellow agent Kevin Pollak as they wait to lay siege to the home of Michael Parks’ crazed fundamentalist, and as they behold a giant cross in the yard, Pollak quips, “How much do you think a cross like that costs?”
It’s an amusing bit of observational humor in the pre-storm calm quickly undone by Goodman’s leaden response of “You mean in dollars or common sense?” Pollak replies with a “Zing!” as Smith himself tries to undercut his own knocks against the religious right, a trend that continues throughout the film.
At the start, though, State certainly doesn’t look like a Kevin Smith film, with regular cinematographer David Klein adapting a refreshingly gritty and loose aesthetic, and for a good while it doesn’t sound like a Kevin Smith film either, even as the dialogue tumbling out of the mouths of three horny teens (played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner) still sounds just a notch too overwritten for its good. This trio has decided to take an online mistress up on her agreement to sleep with all three of them, and before you can say “too good to be true,” they drive out to a remote trailer, find themselves greeted by an older-than-expected Sara (Melissa Leo), and are promptly left woozy by the beers she had so readily offered upon their arrival…
This is when Parks enters the picture as Sara’s father, Abin Cooper, leader of the controversial Five Points Church (read: Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church), and the tirades begin. Over the course of a lengthy sermon -- reportedly even lengthier when the film played at Sundance earlier this year -- Abin attempts to rationalize their clan’s systematic kidnapping and murder of homosexuals and promiscuous young men. Parks proves equally enthralling and repellent in this moment, while Smith starts to let his screenplay get the better of the proceedings. For every sermon dripping with disdain, we’re treated to an exposition-heavy phone conversation between Keenan (Goodman) and his superiors, re-iterating just how evil the Cooper gang is. For every set of orders that sees Keenan questioning aloud whether or not he’s doing the right thing, someone within the compound expounds on how a government so eager to paint its own citizens as terrorists must be truly evil itself.
It’s like a numbing, bullet-strewn game of Telephone as the Waco-like siege gets underway, itself not nearly as exciting as the relatively personal stakes set up in the horror-tinged first act, and the cast can’t be faulted for the repetitive and obvious nature of the film’s second half. While Parks conveys the essence of righteousness gone feasibly awry, Leo elevates a one-note role as his devoted daughter, lending a degree of unshakable conviction to her expectedly hateful deeds. The young men all seem reasonably potty-mouthed, then realistically panicked, in the face of extreme circumstances, and Goodman underpins some particularly on-the-nose dialogue with a sense of equal indignation toward both the God-fearing and the law-bending on either side of that giant cross in the yard.
The ending dares to become Smith’s most provocative gambit yet before flinching and leading to yet another ham-handed rant about ruthless behavior. Red State wants so badly to push viewers’ buttons, but it struggles to reach them more often than not.
Red State is currently in limited release and also available on demand.