Calculated to outrage and executed to underwhelm, Kevin Smith’s “Red State” is like a dull blade slashing wildly, predictably and ineffectually at its target. Attention-seeking Sundance buzz aside, this sloppily constructed horror-thriller lacks the satirical bite and action chops to skewer extreme-right-wing zealots with the gusto Smith clearly feels they deserve, instead evincing the verbal incontinence and slack tension that have long dogged the writer-director’s work. Result should stir up enough pointless indignation and fan curiosity to recoup its $4 million budget, but there’s simply not enough here for fundamentalists to hate, or for gorehounds to love.
Immediately following the pic’s Park City world premiere, attended by sign-waving protestors not unlike those featured in the movie, Smith announced that he would self-distribute “Red State” through his Smodcast Pictures banner starting Oct. 19, after a roadshow tour slated to kick off March 5 at Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall. The news followed an inspired screw-the-system rant in which Smith demonstrated an abiding passion for independent filmmaking that, unfortunately, is in no way reflected in what has actually made it onscreen.
In a dumpy backwater town in an unspecified location (though we can assume it’s a red state), lunatic preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his likely inbred congregation strike fear and disgust in the hearts of locals, staging rallies at the funerals of gay hate-crime victims. So notorious that even neo-Nazi groups distance themselves from him, Cooper turns out to be not just loathsome but murderous, luring presumed homosexuals into a trap and then stringing them up on a cross, to be summarily executed after he and his bloodthirsty lieutenant Sara (Melissa Leo) have whipped their flock into a righteous lather.
Cooper’s latest intended victims include a trio of horny teenage boys — Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) — who drive into the woods one night expecting a four-way hook-up with a gal they found online. En route, they accidentally run afoul of the local sheriff (Steven Root), who, caught in a compromising position with a young man, becomes determined to make sure the boys don’t spill his secret.
The upshot of all this is that the teens find themselves trying to escape Cooper’s lair just as the sheriff is trying to penetrate it. Further complicating matters and decelerating the pic’s rhythm, the ATF brings in an agent (John Goodman) to contain a potentially embarrassing situation, in a clear reference to the 1993 Waco disaster.
Thus, “Red State” becomes an equal-opportunity kill-fest, advancing the charming view that at the end of the day, virginal adolescents, closeted gays, fundamentalist bigots and incompetent government employees are all interchangeable AK-47 fodder. That would be fine, given the pulp context, if the pic didn’t also seem confused as to whether viewers are supposed to identify with the characters at all (and if so, with whom), or if the numerous chase scenes and firefights were shot and staged with greater B-movie verve.
Following his recent foray into action moviemaking with “Cop Out,” Smith’s decision to tackle a low-budget horror quickie (reportedly produced in just four months) would seem to excuse, and even justify, the clumsiness of his technique — namely the grungy, unattractive lensing, done here on a wobbly Red camera. In actuality, the lack of craft becomes only more apparent in the pic’s failure to generate significant shivers; the sole visual innovation here is the use of digitally sped-up footage to get the viewer’s adrenaline pumping at brief, sporadic intervals.
Absent any visceral mojo, pic tries to fall back on Smith’s gifts as a wordsmith, which are seldom in evidence here: More than once, characters launch into momentum-killing monologues in which jokes as well as plot developments are endlessly belabored. The larger problem is that the script is unable to channel its sociopolitical rage in a way that would draw blood as satire. Once auds get past the ostensibly outrageous concept of a trigger-happy Christian cult (the fact that it’s on the lunatic fringe actually makes for a less scalding critique), “Red State” has few surprises up its sleeves, apart from the occasional shock of another character being brutally dispatched.
Quoting the Bible and issuing homicidal directives in the same gently insinuating voice, Parks makes Cooper a disturbingly soft-spoken psycho, and he does as much as anyone could with a fire-and-brimstone sermon so endlessly protracted that it nearly stops the pic in its tracks. He and Leo make a pretty creepy duo, and the pic at least seems to recognize their charisma as an asset.