James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Dominic Murphy's feature debut reimagines the story of real-life 'mountain dancer' Jesco White as a stylised slice of psychobilly gothic
"That's what happens when you're cranking it," comments Jesco White (Edward Hogg) in ad man Dominic Murphy's striking feature debut White Lightnin'. "Hardly know the visions from the reality."
In context, White is describing one of his many hallucinatory lapses into madness, fuelled by both drug binges and demented fundamentalism, but he might just as well be referring to the liberties taken with the truth by this fanciful biopic from hell.
Beyond the deeply impoverished community of Boone County where he lived, few people had ever heard of Jesco White (born 1956) until 1991, when he was profiled in Jacob Young's 'The Dancing Outlaw' as part of a Public Broadcasting Service series on West Virginian 'outsider' musicians. For 30 mesmerising minutes, White delivered an unselfconscious and frankly unhinged riff on his substance abuse, his love of Elvis, his volatile marriage and the recent death of his father in a shootout, while demonstrating his status as 'the last of the mountain dancers' with an impromptu performance on the roof of a dog kennel. And so, as this living embodiment of redneck authenticity proved stranger than any fiction, a cult legend was born - and with a certain inevitability, the previously unknown White was suddenly finding himself referened in the songs of other musicians, and even having a guest cameo (as a 'country cousin') on TV's 'Roseanne', with Jacob Young in tow once again to document how 'Jesco Goes To Hollywood'. The real White was being turned into a postmodern plaything.
Young's first documentary inspired Canadian Shane Smith (co-founder of 'Vice' magazine) to begin writing White Lightnin' for his friend Murphy to direct - but where others had airbrushed out the less salubrious aspects of White's history (White even agreed to cover the swastikas prominent on both his hands with new rose tattoos for his 'Roseanne' appearance), Smith and Murphy's rather different approach was to construct a story that exaggerates White's past sins while erasing entirely any reference to his present celebrity. Their character-cum-narrator White is, and remains, an obscure object of his own myth-making, and a lost chapter of Appalachian otherness, buried in the fictive tropes of hillbilly gothic.
"My life's been a party, and a joke, and a tragedy," comments Hogg's White, capturing something of the shifting moods here that serve so effectively to disorient the viewer. For while there has to be a certain bleakness in any film that begins with its protagonist already committed, at age six, to petrol huffing and bloody self-harm, and then goes on to document an adolescence spent in reform schools, work camps and psychiatric institutions, or else just in trouble, White Lightnin' locates the darkest sort of humour in all this, quickly winning our bewildered sympathy for this otherworldly, appetitive and at times hyperviolent recidivist.
Perhaps most emblematic of the film's desultory tone is the sequence in which White flags down a driver with the intention of jacking her car, until he sees that she's "a vision of beauty, an angel from heaven" (if middle-aged and in horn-rimmed spectacles), declares his desire to call her Priscilla ("my favourite name"), and ends up back at her place, enjoying "the best pussy I ever had in my life, the cleanest too".
Despite the fact that Enid Carter/'Cilla (played gamely by Carrie Fisher) is White's senior by many years and already married with children, she joins him for a passionate if turbulent relationship, whether in his kitsch-festooned house or on the road where he dances in the shoes left him by his murdered daddy (Muse Watson). Eventually, White's demons become too much even for her and by the film's intense third act, few will still be laughing, as a bearded Hogg walks the line between Jesus Christ and Charles Manson, guided by crystal meth-assisted psychosis to an archetypal mountain cabin where Old Testament vengeance meets New Testament salvation by ordeal.
Shot in a down-and-dirty handheld style with any hint of a primary colour carefully leeched out of the images, and increasingly saturated by the maddening feedback loops of Nick Zinner (from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Murphy's film feels all at once like an exploitation documentary and a bedevilled fever dream, ruled as much by the filmmakers' as by White's fantasies and delusions about trailer trash (anti)heroics. If you want to learn more of Jesco and Co, you could always opt for the feature documentary The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia that screened at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival - but who can say that its mediated reality is truer than Murphy's artful vision?
From its bleakly comic beginning to its fire-and-brimstone ending, this artful trailer-trash quasi-biopic will set your heart pounding and your feet tapping.
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