“Even the Nazis think this guy is nuckin’ futs”
As if Kevin Smith wasn’t polarizing enough on his own, the venture making Cop Out for hire bought more ill-will and the risky endeavor of self-producing an original horror only allowed a new genre’s legion of fans to add to the backlash. It’s weird because I always thought Smith was pretty universally loved between his seminal debut Clerks and cult favorites Mallrats and Chasing Amy. My circle of friends would stop at nothing to see his latest work in the theatres and the interesting choice to make a sequel to his most famous film somehow panned out in creating something almost funnier than its predecessor. So the recent vitriol towards him has been surprising while the lack of respect concerning his decision to try something new with Red State perplexing considering so many in the media love to applaud artists going outside their comfort zones no matter the success. I guess there really aren’t many vocal critics who have any left for the writer/director.
Admittedly, I never did catch Cop Out. I see so many films a year—many of which are horrible—but something about a Kevin Smith film without his name credited as a writer seemed wrong. It barely made back its budget, critics weren’t very kind, and I secretly smiled in anticipation of a new original work hitting theatres next. Talks about his hockey film Hit Somebody began circulating but it was the neo-conservative horror flick Red State that found itself on the top of the pile. Self-proclaimed accolades were lauded upon it according to its creator, yet no one wanted to front any money. So Smith went rogue from Hollywood, made the film, took it on a tour of the country, and watched it release wide on iTunes and Netflix. It was a new avenue for him and it seems to have worked considering many have seen it with varying degrees of enjoyment. For a horror film—as Netflix Instant subscribers like me can attest from the selection—this type of release may actually be beneficial.
But the question remained whether it would be any good. We all have our Kevin Smith preconceptions and clamor for more Dante and Randall antics despite promises this work would be dead serious. Promotional material suggested its desire to be treated as horror and the early footage of star Michael Parks‘ creepily evil-langelical orations fit the bill. Centering on a trio of high schoolers looking to lose their virginity to an older woman on the ‘Craigslist for sex’, the realization they’ve been duped, drugged, and kidnapped comes too late. Tied up in cellophane and awaiting their ‘cleansing’ on behalf of the Cooper family’s Five Points Trinity Church, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, and Kyle Gallner become caught up in an ATF sting culminating into an all-out shootout where deadly force has been ordered to eliminate witnesses. Cooper’s followers have seen the face of evil, though, and it’s the homosexuals and their defenders. Death means salvation, so they’ll stand and fight no matter what.
Beginning with all the usual genre tropes, Smith appears to be borrowing a lot from films such as Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The villains form a coven of hatred seen in the open by picketing funerals of gays and lesbians while their private lives contain secret ideas of grandeur to create a militia in Jesus’ name. Middle America allows for a certain hick, Southern flavor and the grime of heat and tobacco put a backroads aesthetic in play. Sherrif Wynan (Stephen Root) is a twitchy failure of a cop afraid for his own secrets to be discovered; Deputy Pete (Matt L. Jones) is too kind and simple to see the dangers under his nose; and Angarano plays completely against his usual type with an air of defiance and chew firmly tucked in cheek. Braun and Gallner are faux confident and ready to be deflowered, but the fear after capture subverts any hard façade they tried to conjure. Watching them weep as the Coopers look on eager to pounce effectively brings out the vibe Smith seeks.
The film unfortunately takes a left turn when the horror ratchets up and the death toll mounts. The use of politics and religion as a basis for terrorist activities makes way for an overt diatribe against extremists on both sides of the law. We are made aware of the brainwashed ideals of the Coopers like Melissa Leo, James Parks, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, and Ralph Garman as well as the constricted vision of bureaucracy once Agent Keenan (John Goodman) is shown ignoring conscience for orders. Both forces soldier on uncompromisingly and the body count grows. No one is safe when the melee breaks loose, not even a Cooper—Kerry Bishé‘s Cheyenne—flipping sides to save the youngins. Familiar faces like Kevin Pollak and Kevin Alejandro come in briefly and few find themselves standing at the end let along two minutes after gracing the screen. While the scares disappear in lieu of unbridled action and nonstop gunfire, at least Smith knows to make sure no actor is held sacred.
Michael Parks is the easy person to highlight amidst Red State‘s bi-polar style change and cautious foot forward into territory feeling more, “Can we do this?” rather than, “We’re doing it!” He never falters in his Hand of God wisdom or the faith in knowing the Almighty cheers for his corner. Bishé is sympathetic and Goodman excels as a tormented subservient handcuffed from doing the right thing. But while the acting is solid and a couple jokes hit their mark—”How much you think that cross cost?”—Smith’s want to be clever in resolution only ruins the good he accomplished before it. Ending with an exposition-heavy whimper rather than the balls-out massacre we assumed was coming, Smith decided to be cute and fails miserably. The best laugh may come with the film’s final line cutting to black, but the biggest joke is how underwhelming the journey finishes. The worst thing a horror flick can leave you with is a feeling of, “That’s it?”
 Michael Parks in Kevin Smith’s Red State.
 John Goodman in Kevin Smith’s Red State.
 Michael Angarano (‘Travis’) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Red State.