When one thinks of Kevin Smith, ‘Clerks’ almost always comes to mind. It makes sense because it achieved so much with so few resources. There is no replicating that. His subsequent films were all in the same View Askewniverse so while they all have their admirers and detractors, they are all loosely tied together. Problems hit in a big way when ‘Jersey Girl’ came out. It was unlike anything else he did and didn’t go over well. He responded with ‘Clerks 2’ a highly watchable victory lap that proved he still had a lot of the old magic. This was followed by ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno,’ a profane yet sentimental (overly?) work that seemed like a transition piece. Directing (but not writing) ‘Cop Out‘ may have been one of his biggest career mistakes. We then get a complete left turn known as ‘Red State.’

Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) are three high school students who want to get laid. Jared gets an invitation from a woman online, so the three friends drive to a trailer to have their dreams come true. The woman is Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). She urges them to drink beer which turns out to be drugged.

Jared wakes up in a covered cage and he hears an angry sermon being conducted a small, but devoted audience. He figures out that the speaker is Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the leader of the Five Points Church. This church is notorious for protesting outside of funerals of homosexuals and other perceived sinners. After this interminable rant, a gay man who was captured by the group and who has been tied to a cross on the pulpit is executed. This could account for all of the recent deaths in town. We see that Travis and Billy Ray are bound below in a crawl space.

Before the group can kill Jared, things are interrupted when a deputy drives up to the compound to investigate a damaged vehicle that went unreported. This sets off a series of events which culminates in a violent standoff where many lives hang in the balance.

Oh, and John Goodman has a big role in the second half of the story as an ATF agent.

First and foremost, despite what you may have read elsewhere, this is not a straightforward horror movie. Not even close. As you can surmise from the synopsis, it’s putting the Westboro Baptist Church in a Waco situation. There are some horrific things that happen, but precious little suspense is generated. The tone is much closer to being a dark action film.

There is some serious firepower to be had from this well-armed wacky religious cult. In the early-going, it seems as though we’re going to get a variation on ‘Hostel’, but a lot of the latter half of the story is closer to a reversed ‘Assault on Precinct 13.’

This is obviously drastically different for Smith. He has touched on religion before, mostly light-heartedly (and irreverently?) in ‘Dogma.’ Both explored literal interpretations of the Bible in contemporary settings, but there is nary a trace of wit or relief to be had here. The straight-from-the-headlines feel to it is a very clear statement about religious extremism and the potential harm of belief when in the wrong hands.

Smith has never been a particularly strong director. This crops up again here in a very big way. Some of the action scenes are staged so frantically, that it becomes disorienting. You could justify it by saying that it is meant to represent that character’s confusion (one such chase comes to mind), but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch. Also, and most damagingly, there are monologues delivered by characters that seem to go on forever. Such scenes are obviously important in establishing characters, motivation and exposition, but they kill the momentum of the story. Doing so in half the time would have helped significantly, but we would have been left with a sub 80 minute movie. If you want to have some narrative padding, don’t make it so obvious.

The ending is told rather than shown. Seeing the irony would have been so much more powerful that just telling us. One reason for this may be that the final ending wasn’t the original ending to the plot. That is a very sloppy way to go back and wrap things up. It also happens to be very anti-climactic. On the bright side, there are some brave choices as far as who lives, who dies and when it all happens. There was no fear as far as breaking some well-worn conventions which makes things unpredictable in that regard.

Most disappointing of all, Smith’s true gift of writing is mostly squandered here. The teens are often reduced to inarticulately pleading for their lives (understandable) but everyone else is so grim and secretive, the script plays it too close to the vest. Humor would have deflated any attempts at suspense, but believable dialog is what Smith does best. Not so much here. If someone else had written this, there wouldn’t be as much criticism, but he has proven himself to usually be a strong writer. Some clever bits of irony aside, it seems as though the filmmaker is out of his depths in this particular genre.

Michael Parks is excellent as the mad pastor. His performance is one of the best things about the movie. John Goodman does a decent job, though he seems to be on auto-pilot. The rest of the cast, even Melissa Leo, are only okay.

Special features include: a making of documentary, Smodcasts, a Sundance Festival Speech, a conversation with Michael Parks, deleted scenes, trailers and a poser gallery.

According to many sources, Kevin Smith plans to make one more movie after ‘Red State,’ a hockey comedy called ‘Hit Somebody.’ After that, he claims to be quitting the movie business. That’s a shocking decision for someone who is only forty years old, but after the harsh reception his last few films have received, some time way might benefit everyone. He can craft a story that actually plays to his strengths and the public can forget about his recent duds, fondly recalling his early successes.

Rated R                 88 minutes         2011

This post was written by:

J.J. Ellis – When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!