OCTOBER 27, 2011
My two “new” filmmaker heroes in high school were Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith (joining guys like Carpenter and Romero that I already idolized), and it’s been interesting to see how they have evolved over the years, especially in 2009, when QT released Inglourious Basterds, which was his best film in years and represented a new maturity for the filmmaker, while Smith put out Zack and Miri Make A Porno, a not very memorable comedy built around the same relationship woes and Star Wars jokes he’s been doing all along. But if he had his way, his own “departure” would have been the one coming out, as Red State was written years ago but his inability to secure financing due to its subject matter resulted in Porno going first.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if the financing he eventually DID secure was much less than he had in mind and thus had to rewrite his script significantly. For all his talk about it being a disturbing horror movie, it’s remarkably light on horror, to the extent that I wouldn’t even consider it for HMAD if not for the fact that the damn poster refers to it as a horror film (as does its writer/director). It certainly starts off as a religious-tinged take on a “bad things happen to kids who venture out of town” horror movie, complete with a car accident of sorts, but this sort of approach, and the kids themselves, are completely phased out by the time the 2nd act kicks in, when a typical horror movie scene (the villain trying to get rid of a snooping cop) ends in violence and kicks off a lengthy siege film (think Waco).
Given the emphasis on action/violence, I guess it’s a good thing that this is one of the best directed Smith films yet, possibly ever. His scripts were always the main draw, to the extent that movies like Dogma were severely weakened by his inability to stage anything exciting (I loved that script when I read it a year or so before the movie came out; found the movie disappointingly flat). I will also never understand how it is that Kevin “tripod” Smith was chosen to DIRECT an action comedy with Bruce Willis instead of writing one (Cop Out), but in a way those and his other flatly directed films make this one all the more impressive – frenetic camerawork! Decent editing! Hell, even some stylish lighting! Overuse of Snorri-cam aside, it’s one of the better shot low budget “horror” films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Unfortunately the script is the real issue here, which again makes me wonder if he had to rewrite when the dough didn’t come in. He’s revealed on more than one occasion that the original ending was changed, and since it was far more interesting than the one he ended up using, I have to assume that it was changed for budgetary reasons, as it would have involved big FX. Instead, the movie jarringly shifts from the standoff to one of the film’s few survivors talking about what happened after, which in a way is (for the first time in the 90 minute film) trademark Smith: a couple guys in a room talking about doing things that are interesting rather than actually showing it.
It’s also the final example of a problem that plagues the entire movie: a lack of focus. Our three horny youths (baited into the evil church’s clutches for very strained reasons that even the endlessly yammering Michael Parks character can barely defend) should have been the focus throughout the movie, or they should have all been killed at once, Psycho-style, with the focus switching to Parks for the rest of the time. But after spending a while with Parks, (who is terrific; at times Smith's "Oscar qualifying run" of the film almost seemed a worthwhile venture) the focus switches yet again to John Goodman, as an ATF agent who either follows his orders (kill everyone) or feels guilty in alternating scenes, which is just confusing – I kept wondering if I was missing a scene where his change of heart made sense.
And then there are other characters momentarily given the spotlight as if the movie was entirely about them (such as Kyle Gallner, who is the most anonymous of the trio of youths but is suddenly at the center of the ATF vs. cult war), but all of them are pretty much wasted in the end. Stephen Root in particular is given the potentially meaty role of a closeted homosexual (married to a woman), but once the siege begins he is told to sit in his car, which he does, and then we don’t see him again until (spoiler) he is unceremoniously shot by one of the cult folks, with no more fanfare than any of the anonymous cops who get taken out during this sequence. I appreciate Smith’s willingness to kill off so many of his characters, but he didn’t bother to flesh them out enough to make them worth caring about – your concern for Sheriff Wynan has nothing to do with what he does in the movie, it’s all based on the fact that he’s played by Stephen Root, lovable character actor. And thus while it certainly makes for a nice shock when a certain (different) name actor is shot in the head only a few minutes after his introduction, I couldn’t help but notice that the only reason I cared was because of the significance of the actor playing him; put some random actor in the role, and you will barely even notice he’s dead, let alone care.
I’m also unsure what Smith seems to be saying here beyond “These religious whack-jobs sure are crazy, huh?” Parks’ character of Cooper is clearly modeled on Fred Phelps (though Goodman’s character points out Phelps as a “suer not a doer”, likely to prevent Phelps from suing), but does anyone – even Smith’s rabid fans who seemingly only watch his movies and listen to his podcasts – really need to be told that Phelps and folks like him are assholes? Smith himself delivers the film’s final line, a mere “Shut the fuck up!” to Cooper who is attempting to sermonize (spoiler) from his jail cell, which seems to be the most blunt way of summing up his entire position on these folks, but do we really need a movie about that? It’s like Crash winning Best Picture because it had the stones to point out the pointlessness of being racist. Bold! It might have been interesting to peel back the layers on this sort of guy, but the movie never bothers to make that sort of daring observation – even alone in his cell, we can clearly see that Cooper believes what he’s saying, or otherwise with no one around he might be reading a porno mag or engaging in some other hypocritical behavior.
On occasion, Smith seems to be trying to point out that the Coopers of the world are no worse than horny teenagers or cops who blindly follow orders (the cast list is broken up between “sex” “religion” and “politics”), but he doesn’t follow through – Goodman is the closest the movie gets to presenting a hero (with Cooper as the villain), but his constant flip-flopping makes it impossible to get a read on him at all, let alone decide if he’s just as bad as anyone else. Ultimately he just sort of feels like a cog in the wheel, which adds to the movie’s rather pointless feel. Smith clearly chooses a side on this issue, but when the only way to know for sure is via an ADR line of dialogue that he chose to deliver himself, there’s a major problem with the actual movie.
Back on Project Greenlight 3, when they were doing Feast, my boy Affleck had Smith watch a cut of that movie, and when it came time to give his opinion, Smith started by saying that he doesn’t like horror movies. I can’t imagine his position has changed much in the past few years, so overall the movie serves as another example of why guys who don’t like horror movies shouldn’t be making them. Anyone who dismisses an entire genre as a whole probably doesn’t have an appreciation for what makes them work for those that do, which is probably why nearly everyone (even its defenders) has trouble understanding why Smith keeps calling this a horror movie. I guess the idea of these folks existing is pretty scary, but having them all shot to death or imprisoned seems to suggest that the problem can be taken care of; a real horror movie would have their number growing by the end, with Cooper having the ear of a senator or something, insinuating that things will get worse. Even the original ending would have at least had the vague notion that they were right. Either way, if you’re expecting a horror movie you won’t find it, and if you’re expecting a thought provoking “scary” drama about extremists, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Nice looking movie though. Good job on that one, Kev.
What say you?
P.S. Since his fans tend to come out of the woodwork to defend their hero, I’m guessing a few folks will read this as their first HMAD review. First, hi! Second, I am NOT a Smith hater. I don’t think much of him as a person anymore thanks to his obnoxious Twitter feed (which I was able to follow for about a week before getting tired of seeing him clog my feed – and I follow Weinberg for Christ’s sake!) and constant attention-grabbing theatrics, but I still enjoy and own just about all of his movies, with this being the first one I didn’t see in theaters (not paying 20 bucks to see a movie at the New Bev where I usually see two movies for 1/3 of the price, sorry) since Clerks. Yes, I was one of the 37 people who saw Mallrats in theaters. So flame away, but if you call me a hater or whatever I will delete the comment. I encourage opposing opinions but I have no patience for childish name-calling, especially when it’s not even accurate.