Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pew Askew: RED STATE

With Kevin Smith’s films it’s always one step forward, two steps back. He’s an auteur utterly incapable of growth along any satisfying career trajectories. There’s a reason why he’s far more beloved for his speaking tours and podcast appearances than for his actual films at this point. Whatever charm he has live and in person – his skills as a conversationalist are considerable – is missing from his finished products. I’ve grown exasperated with him, turning up for each film and finding less and less of what I wish to see, namely a fully enjoyable experience. His 1994 debut feature Clerks, a simple, crude, and cheap black and white affair shows such promise without, you know, being a good movie, that its strange to see a director forever moving sideways.

His talent has curdled. An early sense of precociousness has become precious, self-satisfied, and over-written, one talky comedy following the next. Even films like Chasing Amy and Dogma, his relatively more ambitious attempts to brush up against his own emotional or religious truths, come burdened with dialogue that registers to my ears as utterly false. Smith commonly claims to be far better with dialogue than with visuals. There’s some truth there. His visual sense is strictly perfunctory, impersonal, where his writing drips with his personality. But at least his visuals are not as mannered and stylized as his dialogue which is so flatly similar across every character that to watch a Kevin Smith movie is to experience a cast of puppets all speaking in his voice.

With Red State, though, he shakes things up. He’s attempting to get back to the kind of scrappy indie potential that his filmmaking hasn’t shown in almost twenty years. This isn’t a talky comedy; it’s a talky horror thriller. Three teen guys (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner) drive out to a remote house in the woods where they think they are to find a woman (Melissa Leo) that they met online. In person, she’s older than they expected and her motives are darker than they think. She drugs them and hands them over to the leader of a cult, a creepy, charismatic preacher (Michael Parks). The film pauses to regard this lanky, grizzled man as he delivers to his congregation a lengthy homophobic sermon that culminates in his murdering a bound gay man on the altar while the three teens shiver in a cage nearby.

This is all adequate sloppy scariness, unsettling and squirmy. It’s not typical Smith, visually static and uninspired. I particularly liked a shot in which a church-basement’s gun closet slowly reveals its contents as a cross-shaped fluorescent light flickers to life overhead. Smith’s camera jumps and leaps with similarly disrupted editing. As the teens attempt to escape and get caught up in a bigger calamity, the story Smith tells takes wild, provocative leaps in tone and content. His characters speak in distinguishable dialogue, giving a chance for individual actors to stand out, like when John Goodman thunders onto the scene as an ATF agent who gets pulled in to investigate. Moving around the margins are less successful caricatures that are of little use for the film, like a buffoonish sheriff (Stephen Root) who seems to be only a pawn for Smith’s larger political aims, a satirical intent that never fully materializes.

Smith is trying so much new here. The film is as alive with promise as anything he’s ever done. And yet, and yet, this still isn’t a good movie. When it debuted at Sundance in the middle of a Smith-fueled media-circus, the critical condemnation was swift and furious. He called the film a game-changer, a film so good he felt ready to retire, but this haphazard mess is anything but a game-changer. It’s a radical departure in style and tone for Smith but it’s not any better a horror film than his other films are comedies. Its wild leaps feel schematic when they come to land; the twists are harsh, flippant rug pulling and mindless blood lust. The film’s potential slowly drains away so that by the end it feels like its been written, manipulated, into a corner from which only a shrug can escape. What makes Red State particularly disappointing is the way it’s so close to being Smith’s best film, and yet so terribly far away. It’s a film that sets out to skewer unquestioningly held beliefs that is ironically preachy and ultimately only satisfying for audiences already initiated into the cult of Kevin Smith.

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