Every town has a few local legends. Jesco White, a poor, Appalachian entertainer popularized in documentaries and folklore, is definitely legendary. His outlaw persona, flirtation with drug addiction and his brash philosophy lends itself to myth and mystery.
“White Lightnin’” (2009) is a fictionalized bioflick that takes White beyond the moonshine, tap dancing and gas huffing and into a spiritual place.
Director Dominic Murphy understands folklore. That’s why most of the film is so far-fetched. Edward Hogg embodies something greater than White in his performance.
Rather than mimic White’s movements, he attempts to create a man overwhelmed by a violent past. His performance is not a retelling as much as it is a different character altogether. The focal point is the legend, not the man.
And as legends go, White’s life is unusual and dark. A recurring fascination with inhalants, self-mutilation and dancing propel him into a constant search for gratification. Carrie Fisher – yes, Princess Leia of “Star Wars” – plays Cilla, White’s much older wife. Together, they form a Sid-and-Nancy-type duo united by love and bent on self-destruction.
The images are stripped of color but are not entirely black and white. The diluted spectrum hints at a depth that itches to be exposed. Like White himself, the shot selection is quick and angry. The cinematography chains us to him. We experience what he experiences.
There’s little room for interpretation here. The audience is as close to being drunk on whiskey as a film can make them.
The soundtrack is perhaps the best part of the movie. It features regionally and psychologically appropriate artists like Hasil Adkins, who, like White, is from Boone County, West Virginia. His music is stripped down, repetitive, simple rock and roll. The lyrics range from grunting to depictions of decapitation. As the film drags us through the mud, the music makes us all the more uneasy.
Forgive yourself for liking this film. White is not a likable person. But some of the most compelling characters are unlovable. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) is a good example of the iffy protagonist. White pushes your tolerance even further. He’s not just strung out – he’s certifiably psychotic.
Though White is known for his violent tendencies, Murphy hypes the instances of violence. The recurring themes of vengeance and torture take the focus away from White. Even as a child, White thought of ways to kill and torture those he felt wronged him. Most of the violence is fiction and, somehow, we’re okay with that.
It’s not appropriate to ask this film to be accurate to White’s life. For one, he’s still alive. More importantly, the documentaries made on the White family have already laid a claim to the facts.
Murphy, instead, made a film about a region, race and class embodied in a living man. White is deified in “White Lightnin.’” His journey is the story of the supreme hillbilly.
To watch this film is the cinematic equivalent to rubber-necking a five car pile-up on the highway. Sure, you’re not directly involved, but you’re still part of the spectacle.