Red State does. Director Kevin Smith, known for indie comedies like Clerks (1994) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), fancies himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness warning of the dangers posed by... what exactly? Red State (2011) is a transitional film, if a transition to not much: Smith swears his upcoming two-part Hit Somebody will be his final feature.
It's no wonder Smith struggled to find the funding for the production or that he was subsequently unable to find a distributor, leading to the director's infamous 'implosion' at Sundance and the apparently spontaneous decision to self-release the film instead of auctioning it off. During its limited theatrical release, Red State sank like a stone (its total domestic gross stands at $1.065 million) and was eventually foisted on a reluctant public through the uninspiring means of video-on-demand, Blu-ray and DVD.
The director's puzzlingly ill-informed invective against 'belief' will, sadly, turn out to be very much the most charming of Red State's flaws. We open with a teenager, Travis (Michael Angarano), being delayed on his way to school by fundamentalists protesting the funeral of the latest victim in a series of homophobic murders. Clunky plot-dumping reveals that the protesters are members of the insane Five Points Trinity Church, pastored by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).
That's by the by for Travis, though, for he is a teenager in a Hollywood film and thus concerned only with fornication. His opportunity comes when he and his friends Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) drive off to meet an older woman Jarod has connected with online for group sex. On the way they scrape the car of Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root), who's engaged in a homosexual affair, but they flee before recognising the lawman. Arriving at the trailer of Jarod's floozy somewhere in the backwoods, the hapless teenagers are drugged by the supposed sex partner, Sara (Melissa Leo).
When Jarod wakes up, he finds himself in a cage at Five Points Trinity Church, where Cooper preaches an impromptu sermon on the role of homosexuals as Satan's agents on earth straight out of a Chick Tract. This scene, by the way, is genuinely quite good: it's an exaggerated portrayal but still a terrific evocation of folksy fundamentalism. Then the children are led outside by Sara's daughter Cheyenne (the lovely Kerry Bishé, in shorts of a length no God-fearing Christian would abide), and Cooper's sheep kill another prisoner (Cooper Thornton) by wrapping him in plastic and shooting him.
Travis and Billy-Ray, locked beneath the church, manage to escape and find the Five-Pointers' massive underground weapons cache, but Billy-Ray is killed in a firefight with the fundamentalists while Travis hides. The gunshots, meanwhile, attract the attention of a Sheriff Wynan's deputy (Matt Jones), whose investigation is cut short by a shotgun blast to the chest. Before long, a tactical team of the ATF, led by Joe Keenan (John Goodman), has surrounded the church compound, and a siege and vicious gunfight ensue as the agents attempt to force their way in while the surviving teens are trying to get out.
Our plot rests on an impossibility: we're supposed to believe that the church - whose members proclaim the imminent outpouring of God's wrath on the LGBTQ community - has been secretly stockpiling hundreds of automatic weapons and murdering homosexuals without raising suspicion. (Cooper blatantly confesses to these crimes in front of his captives, in the best tradition of Bond villains.) What's more, I daresay that if the Five-Pointers are actively ensnaring horny teens to murder them, they'll have their hands full; yet this, being the reason our heroes are at the church, is the conceit underpinning the whole film.
The bizarre behaviour of the church is a direct function of Smith's total confusion as to their theology. That excessive 'belief' is bad, stated baldly by Goodman's character at the end, is the film's moral; but there doesn't actually seem to be too much content. Cooper's church appear as a wacky combination of Westboro Baptist Church and the Branch Davidians: fearful of the government, which it believes is under the control of homosexuals, suspicious of the 'Zionist media' and awaiting the Rapture, Five Points Trinity isn't like any religious group in the real world. Sure, there's a general paranoia underlying the various groups of the religious right, but Smith's liberal bias leads to him simply conflating every cliché he can think of into a chimerical menace.
That leaves Red State oddly crippled in its ambition to be the earnest message picture Smith intended. Is it supposed to warn us of Westboro Baptist? But they're not armed. David Koresh? Dead. Fundamentalism as a whole? But Red State's church is a grotesque, largely unrecognisable caricature of the real thing (which, for the record, I oppose). There's an element of liberal chauvinism to this. The painfully awkward Southern dialogue, used exclusively by Cooper's faithful, suggests Smith believes some rather ugly things about everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Smith's mess of a script leaves us no-one of the huge cast to root for, although Goodman comes closest. Michael Parks strains mightily against the millstone Smith has put around his neck, and his is the standout performance of the film, mixing ruthlessness with real affection for his congregation. In the second tier, there are a couple of actors familiar from vampire TV series (Marc Blucas of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kevin Alejandro of True Blood). Ultimately the efforts of the capable cast are undone by the wanton cruelties of a script that delights in killing off characters just for the hell of it.
Smith is relatively new to directing action, but he acquits himself well with some rapid camera movement and Snorricam during chase scenes. Such flourishes, however, can't help stretch out the essentially shapeless plot - despite the large cast, Red State comes in at just 88 minutes including credits. Whatever Smith's intentions, it's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing whatsoever. There's little as irritating as being lectured by an ignoramus, especially one moralising from a privileged position.