What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Joe Winston, 2009)
If you follow my reviews at all, you are probably well aware that I’m a fan of horror movies. Big-budget, no-budget, ghosts, gore, even vampire and werewolf love triangles, I’ll watch them all. So attach as much gravity to this statement as you feel it is worth: the scariest creature I have ever seen on a movie screen is Brittany Barden, the almost-college-aged daughter of one of the families at the heart of Joe Winston’s terrifying, infuriating documentary What’s the Matter with Kansas?. Brittany is a model child of the neocon movement. She parrots all the lies with complete conviction. Her greatest dream is to attend Patrick Henry College and become a PAE (politically active evangelical). In short, she is everything that is wrong with heartland America wrapped up in one convenient package. I watched Uwe Boll’s Rampage earlier on the day I watched What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and while I was enduring this pain, I found myself growing more and more sympathetic to the actions of Brenadan Fletcher’s character in that movie; more than once I thought filling the back of a van with C4, driving it into the center of Kansas, and setting it off remotely would be a fantastic idea.
Ostensibly, the film follows Terry Fox, who as the story opens is the pastor of Immauel Baptist Church in Wichita. Fox is of a new breed of preacher, the ones who consider themselves—presumably by dint of their theology degrees—to be qualified to not only hold forth on political topics, but to pressure the masses in the pews to vote a particular way. It won’t be much of a surprise, if you live in this country, to note that said “particular way” involves whatever candidate is anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, anti-any form of progress that has brought America’s culture out of the middle ages in the past fifty or so years. (They have not yet openly cottoned to being anti-integration, but given their other stances, it’s only a matter of time before that occurs.) Usually, that means voting Republican, and in the years since this movie was made, these people have taken over and remodeled what was originally known as the Tea Party in their own image. (The original Tea Party in the mid-2000s were entirely financial-reform oriented, with no religious bent, judging by the books I’ve read from the first years of the movement.) Fox, of course, is backing Republican candidate Phil Kline for governor, who marches in lockstep with the crazy-Christian contingent. (We first meet Brittany Barden as a volunteer in Kline’s campaign headquarters.) At the beginning of the movie, Winston paints a picture of Kansas that is bleak in the extreme; it seems as if Immanuel Baptist is some sort of Blob-like amoebic structure that can do nothing but grow in power, swallow all around it, and eventually take over the universe. But all is not well in the church, and Fox finds himself ousted for using the pulpit to preach political messages; the latter half of the film follows Fox and his dwindling flock as the “chapels” in which they meet get smaller and smaller, while Phil Kline’s lead in the polls dwindles by the day. (Which is not to say that they are not still dangerous, nor that their message of hate and intolerance is not still poisonous; the film’s final twist of the knife, after the end credits, notes that George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who was interviewed for the film and was one of the last American doctors willing to perform late-term abortions, the procedure the crazy-Christian contingent term “partial-birth” abortions, was shot and killed by one of the crazy Christians, Army of God member Scott Roeder, just before the movie’s release.)
I try, as often as I can, to keep my personal views out of my feelings on a given movie (this is harder to do with documentaries oftentimes, viz. Bully–a review I have not yet finished because of that) when rating it. That is very difficult when it comes to What’s the Matter with Kansas? because most of the people onscreen are so thoroughly hateful. But I’ll try. When I was watching the movie, I didn’t realize that Fox was the central character of the film thanks to the way the opening sequences are set up, so it seemed to me that the second half of the movie had wandered off track for a while. (I should probably also mention this is one of those movie for which I have considered instituting a Netflix Synopsis Accuracy guide, since this is another case where, on a scale of 1 to 10, the Netflix synopsis accuracy hovers around 2, and this did not help.) After I read a few synopses of the movie (including the official one), I realized the problem was with my perception rather than the direction of the movie, and I’d planned to bump it up a bit—but I’m feeling grinchy today, and really, if I got that far off-track because of the way the first sequences of the movie are set up, is that my fault or is it the movie’s? I would posit, especially since I’m one of those guys who’s always telling you “movie [x] makes perfect sense as long as you pay a modicum of attention”, that in this case it’s the movie’s more than it is mine, and I took back that half-star. This is not to say that the car accident onscreen is any easier to tear your eyes away from, or that you won’t leave the experience one iota less wanting to put 90% of the people you’ve just spent the last hour and a half with out of our misery. But whether it is or not, the last half of the film feels somewhat directionless, which is kind of a downer. Not a good thing when your entire film is conceived to be (and so successfully is) a downer. However, despite the average rating I’m giving it, this does not in any way mean you should not watch the film; do so at your earliest opportunity.
I should also note that, when I watched this, the average rating for the movie on Netflix was two stars. There’s something to be said for the monkeys not liking to be told they’re monkeys. ** ½