It’s not hard to mock the Westboro Baptist Church. I mean, come on: picketing military funerals? Adopting “God hates fags” as their motto”? Recording childish, homophobic parodies of Lady Gaga songs? The satire practically writes itself. You’d think an experienced filmmaker like Kevin Smith, with a string of juvenile, stoner-inflected comedies under his belt, would have a field day with this material. But you’d be dead wrong.
Because Red State is anything but a “field day.” 90-minute death march through a morass of terrible dialogue and meaningless violence? That’s more like it. Its set-up is ripped off from every horror movie ever made: three teenage boys meet up with a woman for sex, she drugs them, and they end up inside a WBC-style cult compound, about to be crucified. And you know, theoretically, I have nothing wrong with Smith making his own riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I love the idea of a comedy director breaking into horror. But Red State provides the worst of both worlds, as it blends the horny/homophobic banter of a typical Smith outing with the paper-thin characters and plot “twists” of a low-rent Saw imitation. The most frightening aspect of this “horror” movie is that it makes Dogma look like a masterpiece by comparison.
And just as Red State’s meager plot is starting up, it stops. Kevin Smith is so blindingly in love with his own authorial voice that he has his evil preacher deliver the mother of all monologues—a 10-minute rant that apes Fred Phelps’s rhetoric without skewering it. It has no wit or humor or imagination; it’s just a totally straight-faced run-through of fundamentalist talking points, and it goes on forever. Why turn your movie into a soapbox for a homophobic, long-winded lunatic? I have no idea, but this choice torpedoes the movie before it even fully comes to life. The remaining hour is like watching debris settle in slow-motion.
It’s almost eerie how bad Smith’s writing is here. His debut Clerks became a cult hit on the strength of its profane, naturalistic dialogue; 17 years later, he’s hauling John Goodman onscreen to have him spit out reams of clunky, tedious exposition. (Exposition which, by the way, adds not an iota to our understanding of the plot.) This dialogue doesn’t show, and it doesn’t really tell. Instead it tries to push information toward the audience in ugly, tone-deaf paragraphs. Thankfully, it all but disappears during the film’s protracted climax, as ATF agents exchange endless gunfire with the fundamentalists. Then it’s just a matter of watching the characters die off, one by one, as Red State creaks to an end.
I don’t know what the worst part of this movie is. Maybe how it wastes Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Stephen Root; maybe the way Smith hyped it up with his embarrassing Sundance antics and overpriced roadshow tour; or maybe how spectacularly it fails in its anti-fundamentalist mission. Hell, I haven’t even touched on its handheld camera abuse or its hacky editing. Red State gives joyless dreck a bad name.