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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 05.22.09] movie review drama

Year: 2008
Directors: Dominic Murphy
Writers: Eddy Moretti & Shane Smith
IMDB: link
Trailer: Unavailable (boo!)
Review by: Dr. Nathan
Rating: 8 out of 10

Tapping the Source

White Lightnin’ is a sorta biographic flick about Jesco "the Dancing Outlaw" White, an Appalachian step dancer with a “weak mind” and a propensity to keep it that way. On a metaphoric level, it’s also a film about what tends to happen when you treat mental illness with a combination of brutality and drugs. And literal religion.

White Lightnin’ is a story about a man trying to escape himself and who will go to insane lengths to get there. Done documentary style, we first meet Jesco White (Jessie) when he’s just six years old and is already a connoisseur of high-octane gasoline and lighter fluid. While sonny boy huffs and puffs, his father, D-Ray, amuses all at the neighborly get-togethers by doing a little fancy mountain step-dancing. D-Ray is the best dancer around these parts, but he tends to ignore the kids (there’s lots of them) in favor of an audience. Meanwhile, young Jessie is by now so whacked on hydrocarbons he starts looking for new highs, and comes across some bikers, one of whom gives him a little shot of speed. It has the desired effect. Jessie gets so wired he hides under his bed and carves crude, bloody tattoos on his arm. This activity gets him in reform school, where he learns a few valuable street lessons on exacting revenge. Reform school – a Dickensian blend of sadism and army life – doesn’t help our hero at all, and Jessie’s excursions in irrationality soon lands him in the local mental hospital, where his lightning-like flashes of violence are quickly caught and drugged out of him.

Somehow, during all this madness, Jessie and daddy D-Ray connect and Jessie is taught the basic stepdance chops. D-Ray then goes and gets himself killed by a couple of drunk hillbillies, and Jessie inherits his father’s iconic dancing shoes. This is great — he finds a guitar player, works up an act, and hits the very local road, dancing anywhere they’d take him. His travels lead him to a middle-aged, married woman he calls Cilla (after Pricilla Presley) who leaves her family to be with him, but their idyllic bliss of dancing, driving, and drinking come to an end one night when Jessie notices Cilla flirting with a couple of black dudes while he’s onstage. A nasty scene with a gun ensues, and Jessie gives up dancing to stay at home in his shack and Cilla forces him to give up booze and drugs. He amuses himself by doing woodburning projects of biblical scenes, but even the smell of charring pine can’t stop him from obsessing over his father’s death, and how the murderers got away with it. This is too much for Cilla, who finally drives away to the tune of shotgun blasts, and Jessie not surprisingly gives in to his compulsions and ends up drunk and drugged and waiting for his dad’s assailants. They die horrible deaths, Jessie later inadvertently kills a cop, and he then runs off to hide in the deep forest. There he goes completely mad, has a religious epiphany, and starts cutting off bits of his body, which he eats to purify himself of his sins before he goes to heaven.

This film works on many levels, but at its most brutal White Lightnin’ is a wicked and unblinking look at a culture of the dispossessed and the perversity of bible-thumping morality upon the ignorant and “weak minded”, of whom Jessie is an extreme poster boy. Ironically, for all its emphasis on mental mayhem, this film works almost entirely on the level of the physical, culminating in Jesse’s use of his own body and blood in his insane Eucharist of salvation. It is, in fact, the mutilation of the flesh that gives White Lightnin’ its patina of horror. In this world, the price you pay is expressed in pain, not remorse. Or money.

As a result, the story of Jesco (Jessie) is basically a backdrop to the real story of madness within the darkness of grinding poverty and pervasive ignorance in a culture that has no tomorrow. That the film works on many levels is first indicated in the clever title, a fun play on the White family, on booze, on fast dancing, and on Jessie’s mercurial mind, which flashes hot, white and self-destructive at virtually every opportunity.

Fairly well put together – the lack of budget is cleverly disguised with a lot of handheld shots and a documentary voice-over – White Lightnin’ is an impressive debut for director Dominic Murphy and relatively unknown actor Edward Hogg, who plays the adult Jessie White. The writing by Eddy Moretti and Shane Smith is great, and it was quite amazing to see Carrie Fisher as Cilla – I actually didn’t recognize Princess Leia, who appears to have picked up some of Jabba’s eating habits over the years. Owen Campbell as the young Jessie is great, and Muse Watson, who plays Jessie’s dad, D-Ray, is also very believable.

Spiffed up with flashbacks, ominous preachers, lots of blood and the unnerving actions of the irrational, this movie is a steel tap on the heel on humanity – see it if you can.

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Cyberhal (12 years ago) Reply

thanks for the review, sounds like a heck of a film


ifdead (12 years ago) Reply

If I read this correctly this is a movie about Jesco, not the previously made documentary that has been out for some years. I highly recommend the Documentary, it is truly brilliant and disturbing. Mainly due to it being real.


Dr Nathan (12 years ago) Reply

Yes, this is a new movie which sort of uses Jesco's life as a starting point. Yes, the documentary on the real guy is great. I think this movie is basically about the kind of culture that draws a literal connection between the body and the devil.


Muse Watson (12 years ago) Reply

"believable" ? What more do you want? LOL

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