Somewhere in rural Kansas at a country fair, a Democratic candidate for local office sets up a booth that seems to be shunned by everyone in attendance. Meanwhile, a competing Republican table hawking anti-abortion shocking pink miniature plastic fetuses at 25 cents each, is flooded with visitors. And a nod to a passerby back at the outcast Democrat’s stand is greeted in turn with a warm neighborly grin and the words, ‘I wish you good luck, and hope you lose!’
And so begins the determined but awkward journey in 2006 of populist homeboy director Joe Winston back to those heartland roots in the documentary, What’s The Matter With Kansas? Or more to the point, what’s a corn-fed Middle American to do, while warding away those bible belt red state blues. Especially with the sort of political scrapes less about Republican versus Democrat than more along the lines ‘between Jesus and Satan’ as characterized by one typical resident.
Loosely based on Thomas Frank’s bestseller, What’s The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won The Heart Of America, the film may be much less interested after all in the question posed or a mystery unveiled, than allowing the individuals themselves to express without any applied blue state scorn or judgmental attitude, their views and beliefs. And while the approach yields an uncommon, nearly anthropological objectivity, the result tends toward a shapeless and often frustrating lack of determined inquiry or focus.
As Winston treads rather gingerly through the potential bible belt minefield, we come to engage casually with some of the more outspoken lives. Like single mom and self-reliant farmer Angel Dillard who may have found Jesus and Ronald Reagan simultaneously, and named her daughter after the former president (Reagan, not Ronald). While extolling Republican virtues as the cure for whatever ails the country, as she serves up meager canned tomato soup and white bread for the family dinner.
And in an even more telling shocker moment, the staunch anti-abortion advocate revisits the personally painful life and death of her severely developmentally disabled son who passed away in early adolescence. Even as Angel vents her odd rage against the obstetrician who revived her baby when he had no pulse, rather than letting him just die presumably to avoid a lawsuit.
Also up for gentle scrutiny is a conservative activist preacher forced out by church superiors, and relocating his flock to an amusement park; fretting evangelist parents who home school their kids to keep them away from secular temptations; a family excursion over to the Creation Museum in Kentucky where biblical and pseudo-scientific jargon find a peculiar harmony; and perfunctory visits to several neglected landmarks uncovering a surprising buried Midwestern leftist mass movement history that remains in the course of this film pretty much, well, buried.
What’s The Matter With Kansas? eludes deeper and larger questions. Such as the chilling raucous denunciations of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller, but no followup on reactions to his subsequent assassination. And conversely, in the face of lost elections, the prevailing reasoning when God is not on their side. Nor the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and racial resentments fueling the ensuing Tea Party movement, whose unrecognized roots clearly reside in this documentary. Resulting in a cinematic exploration that is more Red State lite, than otherwise.
2 1/2 [out of 4] stars