The Westboro Baptist Armada

Red State (October 18, 2011*)     3/5

Written & Directed by Kevin Smith (Lionsgate)

It should come as no surprise that comedic director Kevin Smith’s attempt to reinvent himself is as interesting as it is ridiculous.  When Red State premiered at Sundance in January, studio reaction was quite mixed, resulting in Smith’s decision to distribute the film himself.  This prompted a very limited release, one that basically brought the movie straight to video.  Generally, it is difficult to get any film distributed that deals explicitly with religion, such as The Passion of the Christ.  Yet that film was a testament of faith, arguably a triumph of Catholicism through the realm of cinema.  Red State … not so much.  Smith’s film, while attempting to demolish horror film conventions, also presents a satiric outlook on the likes of the extremist, genuinely hateful Westboro Baptist Church.  Our humble director has something in mind here, but Red State never means half as much as it probably should.  More enjoyable are the moments of wry, hilarious dialogue that Smith manages to slip through the cracks of his experiment.  They remind us that we are indeed watching a film by the same guy who made Clerks, which despite that being a less “serious” film, is the greatest joke of all.

Three teens, Jared (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) show up at the trailer home of Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo – yes, the one who won an Oscar!), an older woman who they have been chatting with on an online sex site.  Little do they know that Cooper is a member of the Five Points Church, the group who holds protests all across town with signs sporting phrases like “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”  The cult is led by publicity-stealing “prophet” Abin Cooper, played by Tarantino-favorite Michael Parks.  Cooper’s plan to ritualistically torture the boys is disrupted as the law gets involved, including a sheriff with demons of his own (Stephen Root), and ATF Agent Joseph Keenan, played by none other than John Goodman.  From there, the film basically turns into one giant action sequence, its insanity transcending cinematic sense in every way possible.

The film is never very scary or funny.  It never provides us characters to root for.  It basically fails on all fronts that make for a great film.  What it does provide, however, is a gleeful send-up of modern film convention, not just in the genre of horror.  Red State eventually dissolves into a relatively well-photographed shootout, Smith’s jerky, digital cameras never failing to capture a drop of maroon.  Even more interesting is Parks, who provides quite a domineering, spot-on parody of your everyday extremist.  Goodman is also quite fun to watch, his character serving as a hilarious No Country for Old Men homage.  Or at least I think that’s what it is. I don’t really know, because a lot in Red State doesn’t make sense.  But it is also hard to care.  Kevin Smith, while not an expert artist by any stretch, is a great guy to have in Hollywood.  He seems genuinely fun; and his exceptional love for film never appears to cease onscreen, even though Red State is a structural mess.  However, it would be a lie to say there aren’t glimpses of brilliance.

Red State is ballsy to say the least.  I’d say it could offend just about everybody.  But most importantly, it backs it all up with a theological suggestion; the idea that blind faith, without any doubt or questioning, only leads to sin in the never-ending pursuit of purity.  We are all sinners, and the sooner we realize it, the easier it will be to acknowledge our faults, receive forgiveness, and pursue our ideals the right way.  Kevin Smith sometimes makes crappy movies.  And although some aspects of Red State are mediocre, this is clearly not one of them.  For better or worse, I believe Smith fulfilled his own ideals with this film.  After all, Westboro protested the film’s release at Sundance.  If you listen closely, you could probably hear laughter all the way from New Jersey.

*Video Release Date

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