Red State may not look that much like a Kevin Smith movie, with elegant handheld digital camera work tracking the bloody plot through gunfire and fervent prayer (each as brutal as the other). But as characters monologue and digress and drop giant chunks of exposition into nearly every scene, it sounds like any other talky Kevin Smith movie, something that enlivens the otherwise thin characters but also sucks out all the tension and stakes in the action-horror plot. The strange balance is something to watch, but ultimately derails a film that never can pick an ambition and run with it.
It turns out the Westboro Baptist Church protesters outside of tonight's Sundance screening weren't entirely an irrelevant publicity stunt-- the movie takes direct aim at their gay-hating, religious fundamentalist ilk, providing for villains a small, hyper-religious sect who protest funerals for gay people and preach of the imminent rapture. The group is led by a deliberately Fred Phelps-inspired pastor named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), called "daddy" by the members of his congregation and spouting off fiery sermons to pretty much anyone who will listen. As it turns out, though, Abin doesn't just protest the funerals, but causes them too-- for somewhat fuzzy reasons, he and his congregation seek out homosexuals, fornicators and anyone else mildly sinful, and murder them in a way that, OK, is pretty ingenious, even if insanely overcomplicated.
Any further recap of the plot would be misleading, since Red State changes direction and focus so many times that you quickly lose interest every character and plot thread. By the third act the situation has developed into a strange recreation of the Waco siege, with ATF agents (led by John Goodman) firing round after round outside and the fundamentalists in the compound firing back with little regard for their own lives or that of the children inside. There's lots and lots of gunfire, a few impressive tense chase sequences through the labyrinthine compound, but then even more talking talking talking, characters saying every possible plot point out loud and analyzing it and talking some more, usually only to be gunned down in a way the director apparently thinks ups the violent stakes. It doesn't; it just encourages us not to give a damn about a single person or thing we see on the screen.
Smith is clearly stretching himself here, employing fluid and effective camera work for the first time in his career and awkwardly tackling thorny questions of moral relativism and the Patriot Act you never would have seen coming in Clerks (but might if you read his Twitter feed). After all that, though, the best parts are the ones that feel the most classically Smith, the rambling, profanity-laden conversations between teenagers, or a frank denouement of a scene with two FBI agents who say out loud what we all suspect gets discussed behind closed government doors. Smith's writing is still sharp and distinct, and when he hits on a good point in those moments the film perks up to life. Unfortunately the scenes generally go on and on from there, not only reversing the effect of the stronger writing but eliminating the film's building tension-- a deadly mistake in an action/horror thriller that ought to be moving propulsively forward. With a narrative that jumps all over the place and characters almost uniformly loathsome, the long stretches of dialogue only pile on to make the movie drag even worse.
Watching all that conversation taking place amid gunfire and chaos I couldn't help but think of Smith's indie world contemporary Quentin Tarantino, who is an expert at balancing talkiness and tension. Smith is getting there, and for his next film might have been able to take away from the good and bad of Red State to better translate his comedic dexterity into an action-driven plot. But as he announced following the Red State screening-- you can read a lot more about what he had to say here -- this is the second-to-last movie he plans to direct, and the next one is a hockey comedy It's a shame-- for all its flaws, Red State might have been the start of something new for a director whose schtick had been wearing out. Now it's just an odd hybrid of the past and the future that will never be, an experiment falling far short of success.
(Please note this is a festival review written under extreme time constraints, though with as much careful thought and consideration as possible. Because my thoughts may not be as clear as normal, I'm giving the movie a letter grade that I stand firmly by.