RED, WHITE & WASTED begins with its primary subject, Matthew Burns, dumpster diving in the shadow of Disney World with his two daughters, looking for scrap metal he can later sell. One daughter gets hungry when she smells pizza in the trash while Matthew marvels over an unused credit card swiper like he just found a brick of gold. If this were fiction, you’d accuse it of being way too on the nose. Instead it is a documentary, telling you right off the top what your next ninety minutes will look like.
There are no good people in the film, but Burns is the easiest to watch. A near-perfect mixture of Geoffrey Lewis and Dana Carvey, Burns’ sad eyes and soft-spoken demeanor automatically make him the most likable of anyone else we see, despite still being awful. He also centers the film’s two very vague stories: the eradication of his beloved Florida mud holes and the birth of his first grandkid.
With this mudding stuff, you might think the documentary will offer insight into a subculture filled with nuance and rules people outside of it just don’t understand. Documentaries do this all the time. But that’s not this film. Directors Andrei Bowden-Schwartz and Sam Jones have no interest in this Florida pastime except as an extreme example of redneck hedonism. From Burns’ perspective, the act of taking big trucks into muddy swamp areas and getting drunk with friends has fallen downhill since modernity barred him and his friends from doing this stuff on private property. Now young people do it on a much larger scale in sanctioned spots, but the events have supposedly devolved into a sea of white trash sex, drugs and violence. He does not make a strong case that anything of importance was lost or that it wasn’t a sea of white trash sex, drugs and violence to begin with. At times he comes very close to realizing this but never quite gets there.
It can be difficult to take the film at face value because the interview subjects speak as though every sentence is dialog in a comedy written by someone who hates them. Mudding is not some cherished pastime but a stupid thing enjoyed by stupid people. The film’s most frequent topic is not mudding at all but the values of being a redneck and why this or that racist view does not make this or that person racist. We get a lot of guns, a lot of talk about Lord Trump, and a lot of twerking.
I can’t speak for the filmmakers, but there doesn’t seem to be any search for hidden value amongst the subjects of RED, WHITE & WASTED. We are invited to look in terrified awe at the America represented here, not find ways to relate to fellow human beings. But at ninety minutes, it becomes an exercise in tedium. Person after person self-seriously offering the most perfectly ironic proof of their own idiocy, occasionally cutting to a SPRING BREAKERS-level montage of redneck partying. The ugliness of it all - with no hints of redemption or humanity hiding under all the rebel flag posturing - grows wearisome. The point, made nice and loud in the film’s opening minutes, never evolves into anything bigger, so you’re just stuck stewing in the pessimism until it finally ends. It doesn’t strike me as valuable or worthwhile. You’re not learning anything, and it’s not entertaining. Mostly you go through feelings of disgust and fear, followed by guilt for even watching.
The film concludes with Matthew Burns wearing the Confederate flag and taping a homemade music video of him singing Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive”. It’s impossible not to recall TIGER KING, which seems like a Disney production by comparison. The thing is, TIGER KING had a story. It was filled with wild people who occupied a strange subculture we got to know and upon which the real world eventually intervened (sort of). RED, WHITE & WASTED doesn’t have any of this. It’s just a worst-case-scenario look at America in its present form, and I feel like I get enough of that on the news already.