New Releases: Red, White & Wasted (2020)-Reviewed

Film has often been referred to as the "ultimate empathy test." It's a medium in which one is forced to view a subject as they are and while hopefully leaving their biases at the door. As the country continues to descend into violence and anger, it's become increasingly difficult to view stories that portray the "good ol' boy, economically anxious" southerners in a way that doesn't piss you off. Reading the news is a daily exercise in dread, fury, sadness and horror and to see people on screen that represent the very enabling of the culture we're experiencing isn't easy. With that in mind, it's almost astonishing that co-directors Sam Jones an Andrei Bowden-Schwartz are able to craft such a watchable, compelling and, dare I say, empathetic look at the very people a lot of us are probably sick of hearing about.

Red, White & Wasted centers on Mudding culture in Florida, specifically the dying scene in Orlando. If you're unfamiliar with mudding, picture off roading and sub pickup trucks for quads and the swamp for dirt trails. This is a culture that's foreign to me but their decision to focus Matthew "Video Pat" Burns and his family is brilliant. Video Pat is an immediately compelling screen presence. Soft spoken in a land where screaming masculinity is a premium, he's the perfect conduit into this world. 

Video Pat's wide-eyed awe and curiosity despite spending his entire life around mudding makes him, along with Jones and Bowden-Schwartz's camera, the perfect audience surrogate. He's as much a tour guide as he is a person who's never lost the joy for what he loves even as it dies around him. The magic trick of this film is that it never adopts or endorses the perspectives of Video Pat or any of his contemporaries, it just presents them as they are, as human beings. 

The only life these people know are poverty, scrapping for metal and mudding and you have to force yourself from falling into the trap of accepting them whole cloth. There's an intense duality that happens throughout the film where Pat or someone in his family will say something awful and then later in the film, Pat'll be working with his Puerto Rican neighbor or say something about accepting people that knocks you on your ass. There's an understanding that's so close to being reached and you just want to scream. You get the sense that Video Pat isn't a bad person, at least he doesn't think he is. He has an unconditional love for his daughters that never wavers. He's just so deep in the literal and proverbial swamp that he'll likely never emerge. The film offers hope that maybe the birth of his grandchild will soften his and his daughters' world view but even then, that extends only so far. The push and pull going on is profoundly frustrating because there's no excuse for the views they espouse. 

Throughout the film, whether it's imagery or interstitials where a random Floridian will speak to the camera, the intense love for Trump is everywhere. Flags, shirts, stickers, it's all wrapped up into their identity. Any chance someone gets to describe themselves, they always bring it back to Trump or being anti-PC. It's so ingrained in them and it's a world view I can't quite wrap my head around, especially from the other side. When I describe myself, it's never in relation to a political leader. Trump, through his rhetoric and demeanor has tapped into something so base within a lot of these people.

That's why, maybe the smartest thing Jones & Bowden-Schwartz do is weave a narrative about how everything these people think they support is destroying them and everything they love. It's all subtext, never spoken by the filmmakers or the film, but at every turn it's there. While we hear and see virulent support for Trump, the world these people love is being destroyed by everything the man and political elites like him represent. From the corporatization of Orlando that's destroying Video Pat's home to the corporatization of mudding culture itself, the Profits over People mentality is inherent to the Right and yet these people are all in on it. 

Perhaps the saddest moment is when a brush fire destroys Video Pat's swamp, where he's spent his entire life mudding, sending him into an existential spiral. News broadcasts of the fire only depict how it's an imminent danger to giant apartments lining the outskirts of the swamp. It's easy to understand the misplaced anger and resentment when you see things like that. Video Pat and his kin are viewed as outsiders, outcasts, even in their own home. The environment, the swamp, it's all ignored in lieu of what the fire will do to rich people's homes. And yet again, one side of the political spectrum is ignoring how the Earth is reacting to Climate Change. Brush fires and floods are destroying Florida in real time and the people allowing it to happen are the very same people that the mudders adore. The dichotomy here is astounding and in weaving it through an unspoken narrative, the filmmakers are able get across a painful reality: These people are being spoken to and for by the rich elites who seek to destroy their very existence and they don't even really get it. When you're struggling just to get by, false idols promoting strength and prosperity can be more enticing than the harsh truths. 

Red, White & Wasted began its journey in 2016 and just four years later, the people depicted in this film are even harder to empathize with. Many of them talk of arming themselves for a revolution. In light of the last four or five months, that conflict feels frighteningly inevitable. In seeking to depict a culture that anyone above the Mason-Dixon wouldn't quite understand, Jones and Bowden-Schwartz tapped into something deeper. Their film serves as a document of what could be the last gasp of a group of people whose entire existence is being swallowed by corporations and the ocean. It's not asking you to agree with or even understand them. It's asking you to see them as they are as the country moves on from them and there's something profoundly sad about that once you meet someone like Video Pat.

If film is an empathy test, then this may be the final exam as we seemingly hurdle closer to violent conflict and fascism. Through the bigotry, homophobia and sexism, there's a culture here that seems lost, afraid and it's slowly dying. But there's also a culture of camaraderie, joyous fun and family and it's that duality that makes this so hard to parse. In Video Pat we see a man who embodies all of that and in what may be the most heartening aspect about him, he doesn't retract when meeting someone not like him. On the surface, Video Pat appears to welcome anyone.

One of the conflicts of the film is the Redneck Yacht Club, a corporatized mudding event that Pat isn't into. When he does finally go, he finds that all it is, is a bigger version of the world he's inhabited his whole life. If that isn't the entire metaphor for this film as a larger commentary on the need for acceptance, then I don't know what is. People are people, just like you and that's the push/pull that he and many of the people in this film are so close to grasping. But what may be even more prudent, sadly, is that as day turns to night at the Redneck Yacht Club, the fun and games descend into debauchery. Violence, both physical and sexual, racism, frequent screams of "TRUMP THAT BITCH!", it all gets frighteningly dark. As it ramps up into more violence, Video Pat is intercut throughout the montage of hate and a look of bewilderment turns to a look of happiness. Maybe it's here, as joy turns to violence, that we see the truth of why Video Pat was so accepting. Maybe he just found his home and like Trump, who says the hateful things a lot of people are afraid to say, the RYC is the outlet he needed. 

This is a difficult film to qualify. If you’re looking for a criticism or endorsement, I’m not sure Red, White and Wasted is your film. But if you're looking for an excellent document into a culture that's both so foreign yet familiar, so enticing yet frightening and one that's on the verge of being swallowed by the ocean (and hopefully progressivism), Jones and Bowden-Schwartz deliver. There's a part of me that's still nagging that I wish they had investigated deeper or given their own thoughts about some of the more horrific imagery and verbiage shown onscreen. But film isn't meant to do the work for us. It's a difficult thing to see a perceived opponent as human, as more than just their beliefs. One just hopes that the same courtesy would be extended. 

-Brandon Streussnig