Sundance review: Kevin Smith's 'Red State' fails onscreen and off at its world premiere
PARK CITY - If nothing else, it was worth attending tonight's 6:30 premiere of "Red State" at Sundance so that when I speak of tonight in the future, which will only be under duress, I can do so with authority.
Let me quote a tweet from earlier today, when @ThatKevinSmith was talking about tonight's screening. For months now, he's been calling his shot a la Babe Ruth, talking about how he would auction off the rights to distribute "Red State" from the stage of the Eccles auditorium. And let's be clear… this is not a case of me distorting his words or misrepresenting him, as he is so fond of claiming people do with him. Here's what he said today, less than 12 hours ago:
"We've heard a few sight-unseen pre-emptive bids. THIS MOVIE HAS NOT ALREADY BEEN SOLD. After the screening, THEN we'll pick the distributor."
Kevin Smith… you are a liar.
We'll get into that after I review the film, which is actually not that difficult, since the film is almost unbelievably straightforward. I think he's mistaken about the genre, since I wouldn't call what he made "a horror film," but let's grant him that much. It's a horror movie. Fine. The set-up of the film seems to follow a familiar model, and at the same time, allows Smith to lampoon one of his favorite recent targets, the Phelps family.
I certainly have no love for Fred Phelps or his tactics. The first time I saw a photo of one of their protests outside the funeral of a dead gay teenager, it turned my stomach. They are despicable in the way they pervert a message of love and inclusion into a creed of hate and homophobia, but after a while, I realized that the only energy they have is the energy others give to them. There will come a point where Fred Phelps, like all human beings, is dead and gone, and he will take his poisoned philosophy with him, and the rest of the world will go on spinning just like it did before he existed. His entire life is dedicated to this noxious work, and in my opinion, that seems like punishment enough. Fred Phelps doesn't have to worry about going to Hell when he dies, because he's worked plenty hard to create a personal Hell for himself on Earth. And while there's a specific reference to the Phelps family in the script so that Smith won't get sued, you would have to be stupid to mistake his intentions.
Turning Phelps and his family of hyper-fundamental simpletons into the bad guys of this film gives them power they don't truly possess, and much of the film is simply a vehicle for Smith to allow Abin Cooper, his Fred Phelps-alike character played by Michael Parks, to rant. And rant. And rant. If I genuinely wanted to attend a service of the Westboro Baptist Church, I'm fairly sure I could have put together my own transportation and done so. Simply throwing a few unlikeable characters into the background to get shot by the bad guys doesn't justify sitting through these interminable sequences of Parks in full rant. I don't need to sit through this hyperbolic hatred to know it exists.
Three guys, played by Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, and Michael Angarano, decide to answer an ad on an adult website from a woman who claims she wants to have sex with three guys at the same time. When they arrive at the home of the woman, Sarah (Melissa Leo), they are drugged and pass out. When they wake up, they've been taken to the Five Points compound, the home of Cooper and his family, and they watch him execute a gay guy tied to a cross. I would use a character name, but he doesn't seem to have one, and it doesn't matter. He's a device. He's not a person. He's just "the gay guy," there so Michael Parks and his followers have someone to kill first. It's an ugly scene, and the violence is played realistically. There is nothing about "Red State" designed to thrill, and for that, I will give Smith credit. He does not seem to want you to enjoy any of the violence in the movie, something many filmmakers have been guilty of even when they think they're making a movie about moral issues. It's all handled very matter-of-factly, and it's sudden and brutal when people die.
The thing is, I don't care. The three guys are all played as loathsome little toads, and they're on their way to an internet-organized gangbang. Do they deserve anything that happens to them? Nope. Am I invested in any character onscreen? Nope. Smith doesn't even seem to try. The exposition in the film is completely perfunctory, a few quick scenes, and then it's "violence, rant, rant, rant, violence, rant, rant."
And then he brings Waco into it.
As much as the Westboro Baptist Church is a target here, so is the idea of armed government response. There is a cynicism to "Red State" that says quite a bit to me about the writer/director behind it, and I don't need to listen to a podcast or interview him to read that loud and clear. John Goodman plays an ATF agent who responds to a distress call, and when he and his men show up at the Five Points compound, the Cooper family opens fire on them. Happily. And then the rest of the movie is a siege piece, as Goodman's character is ordered to kill everyone and leave no witnesses, with the Coopers welcoming it, sure they're on their way to Jesus.
I am sure I'll hear people defend the script, talking about it as "bold" and "original" and how it takes risks and twists and turns. I disagree. I disagree completely. And for once, I am in a position to respond to the most immature reaction to criticism, because if someone says to me, "Well, if you think you can do it better, you should."
Ahem. I think I did. Make a film, that is. I wouldn't call mine better, per se. Humbly submitted, I will be happy to tell you every single thing I think is wrong with my "Masters Of Horror" episode "Pro-Life," directed by John Carpenter, and it's not a small list. But I will also tell you that we deal with very similar material, we did it in 2006, we did it for 1/4 of the money Smith spent, we had Ron Perlman who was amazing in the film, and I didn't spend a year of my life bent in half like a carnival freak blowing myself in public in the lead-up to the release of the episode. So that removes that old qualifier that filmmakers love to throw at critics, because I know that it's hard to pull off material like this.
In a way, Smith's anti-critic anti-press stance in public that he's adopted since the release of "Cop-Out" is brilliant, because now, all he has to do is tell his devoted SMODcult that critics are "bitter" or that we're "haters," and nothing anyone says matters. In my case, I eagerly await people telling me that I'm mad because he's dealt with similar subject matter to me, and that I disliked his film because I'm "jealous." Only, I already made my film. It's out there. I have nothing to be jealous of. My film exists, and I worked with John Carpenter and Greg Nicotero and Ron Perlman on it. What do I have to be angry about?
Oh… that's right. I'm angry that I sat through a movie that genuinely felt unfinished and undercooked, and that the performance art afterwards was the punchline to a long sustained lie. If Kevin Smith wanted to announce his own distribution company tonight, that's cool. I can respect the desire to control the fate of your own movie, and I think there's something wonderful about the rise of smaller distributors that do things differently. When "Four Lions" did not sell at Sundance last year, and Tim League stepped up to create Drafthouse Films and then tour with the film to create awareness for it, I was happy to support that because it is a great way to handle difficult material. I wish Kevin Smith had simply been honest enough to say to everyone ahead of time, "I'll announce my plan for distribution after the screening." That one small difference would have been honest, and the announcement tonight could have been identical.
Instead, we were treated to him once again explaining his hero worship of Wayne Gretzky, and then some theater in which his producer Jonathan Gordon pretended to open the bidding, then selling the film to Smith for $20.
Really? You know, Smith, for all of your blather over the last half-year about how the press lies or distorts or misrepresents, your behavior tonight was a waste of my time professionally, and it was a public lie in service of your hype and your ego. Congratulations. You are four-walling your movie. I wish you well with it, and I look forward to offering you the freedom from all further coverage that you so vocally desire.
If you're not familiar with the term "four-walling," it essentially means paying for a theater rental, then screening the film and keeping whatever admission you charge for yourself. That's it. That's his 21st century "bold new business model." He'll charge $60 or so per ticket for a venue like Radio City Music Hall, and he'll show it one screen at a time, touring with it.
Again, if that was the plan, and it's obviously been in place for a while since he's got his venues booked for March and the tickets are going on sale this coming Friday, then why not simply say, "I'm trying something new, and I can't wait to explain it to you once you've seen the movie"? The reason is obvious… Smith is more focused on the hype and the hoopla than he is on the movie, and it seems to me that the announcement that "Hit Somebody," his 11th movie, will be his final film is welcome news. If Smith has this much contempt for the audience and for the larger film community at this point, then that's fine… he probably should quit making movies.
As for me? Well, I can tell you that Michael Parks is very good at doing what Kevin Smith has asked him to do. I can't really say I liked the work, because I think it's one note played for the full hour and a half, but I think Parks did exactly what Smith asked him to do. I think Smith should probably stop patting himself on the back over hiring Parks, though, because anyone who knows Parks and his work has been aware for a while that he's a great, versatile, gifted character actor. I think Quentin Tarantino should get more credit for his use of Parks than Smith does. Hell, the guy plays two totally different roles in "Kill Bill, Vol. 2," and most people never even realize they're seeing one actor play both parts. Parks has been great before, and he'll be great again. But the character he plays here is the failure, not the actor.
And I can also tell you that there's one moment late in the film where it seemed for a moment that Smith was about to do something so bold, so crazy, that it almost swayed my opinion of the film. I sat up, excited by the idea that Smith might be trying something that was genuinely shocking or transgressive, something that would force you to debate the ideas in the film in a whole new context.
So of course he undercuts it with a cheap punchline and chickens out completely, ending the film with some more post-Gitmo anti-federal government snark.
I truly believe "Red State" the movie is a failure on almost every level.
And on a totally separate note, I feel like tonight's event was equally worthless. We were basically lured into that theater so that Kevin Smith could read us a press release instead of doing what he claimed he would do. And, no, I didn't have a particular investment in him doing the auction, but I also wasn't the one who said there would be an auction in the first place.
Thematically confused, haphazardly produced, and unlikable to the extreme. I'll leave it up to you to decide if I'm describing the film or the filmmaker at this point.
And on that note, I've written my last word about Kevin Smith.
So we both win. Hallelujah, hallelujah.