STUDIO: Passion River Films
MSRP: $24.98
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

  • Two Audio Commentaries
  • Extended and Deleted Scenes
  • Audience Q&A with Filmmakers

The Pitch

Kansas is a strange and conflicted land.

The Humans

Thomas Frank, Angel Dillard, Donn Teske, Joe Winston (director)

The Lowdown

Based on Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, What’s The Matter With Kansas tries to examine how this state, one that was known as a stronghold of radicals (no, seriously) and used to boast a socialist newspaper with a greater circulation than the New York Times, became a conservative paradise.

Sadly, the baby-killing nerd would not listen to reason.

The simple answer is of course religion, or to be more specific, fundamentalist Christians. The doc points to a couple of game changing events (like the “Summer of Mercy” against Dr. Tiller’s abortion clinic) that allowed the fundies to seize positions of power and start to wield influence and sway in the state.

This was the root of what would come to be known as the tea party movement, and it’s frustrating and a bit scary to see it in its formulative years. But What’s  The Matter With Kansas is unlike me and actually handles the material in a very fair way, choosing to showcase who these people actually are, on both sides of the coin. It’s really refreshing, actually. While it’s still sad to see people basing their decisions on myths and legends and trying to create laws to push them onto everyone else, the litte bit of insight into their lives makes you at least understand where they’re coming from.

One of the main focuses is Angel Dillard, a farmer (like most everyone here) who works as a pro-life activist and even sells cds with her songs about Jesus. We meet her as she’s distributing little dead fetus toys but soon get to know her, and her rough history. The woman has been through a lot in her life, dealing with an abusive relationship and a child that was born brain-dead and lived for 12 years before passing away. Angel and her boyfriend are both followers of Pastor Terry Fox’s 6,000 (!) member Baptist chuch, and when the pastor is kicked out of the church for backing political candidates they follow him to his new home… in a theme park.

You can’t make this stuff up, people.

And God said "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys."

Wild West World, as it’s to be called, will have its very own congregation, or so that’s the plan. At least until the place goes belly-up, taking away their investment money, which was in the 6 figures. Even though they have their doubts about why it went bankrupt they accept it as God’s will.

But the doc tries to show the flipside of the people of Kansas. Perhaps my favorite character (and he truly is a character) is M.T. Liggett, a man who welds inflamatory and political sculptures and proudly displays them on his land.

Do some searching around the net for his work, it’s truly terrific stuff.

Another man on the other side is self-proclaimed populist farmer Donn Teske, a well-spoken man who unfortunately sounds a bit like Hank Hill. He’s upset that his farm isn’t profitable and that both he and his wife have had to take second jobs to make ends meet. If his grandparents could do it why can’t he? He heads to congress to testify on the farmer’s behalf.

It appears to be very hard for Kansans to keep ahold of their shirt sleeves.

And that’s where the strength of the doc truly is. It doesn’t beat us over the head with meaning, or even much of a overlying plot line. We’re just shown the subtle but significant differences in the many people of Kansas and wonder how one group of people can fight for laws and policy that hurt the population as a whole, and what it can mean for the state (and yes, the country) in the years to come.

If this film were What's The Matter with Kentucky this image would serve nicely as the answer.

The Package

Ugly cover art sadly hides a tremendous doc with a decent smattering of extra features. The deleted scenes give you even greater insight into the people’s lives and the audio commentaries let you know what the people have been up to in the last two years. It’s a nice little set.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Ripped shirt sleeves are a very real problem, folks. Please donate your gently-used and washed shirtsleeves to Kansas.