A dark, surreal semi-biopic about the ‘Dancin’ Outlaw’ Jesco White (impressively played by newcomer Ed Hogg), Dominic Murphy’s feature debut White Lightnin’ follows Jesco from his early childhood in West Virginia, mostly spent sniffing gasoline and lighter fluid, to an increasingly criminal and violent adolescence. Although his god-fearing father, the legendary Appalachian mountain dancer D Ray White, teaches him to dance in order to keep him on the straight and narrow, the temptations that torment Jesco prove too strong and frequently get him into trouble with the law, and he ends up in a mental institution. While he is locked up, Jesco learns the shocking news of D Ray’s death. After his release, he decides to do his best to live up to his father’s principles and starts touring around the South, performing in bars with his father’s old guitarist. But his uncontrollable temper puts an end to this and Jesco settles down in a trailer with his much older girlfriend (surprisingly and superbly played by Carrie Fisher). His inner demons increasingly take over and the voices in his head scream for revenge for the murder of D Ray, who was killed in a senseless act of redneck violence. From there, the film takes us deeper and deeper into Jesco’s crazed visions and wild religious fantasies, culminating in a horrifically inventive Old Testament-style revenge followed by an equally violent act of Christ-like self-sacrifice.
Merging real-life events and unbridled fiction, writers (and co-producers) Shane Smith and Eddy Moretti have crafted a bold, nightmarish tale of Southern darkness and Murphy takes the subject matter to cinematic extremes, using a hand-held camera, bizarre angles and repeated blackouts to convey Jesco’s disturbed state of mind. Jesco’s narration guides us through the remembered fragments of his life, occasionally intercut with a thundering preacher’s voice delivering apocalyptic sermons against backgrounds of darkened skies and ominous mountains. Rare touches of colour bleeding through the moody, grainy, muted cinematography combine with the score’s distorted sounds, sparse guitars and shrill strings to convey the story’s underlying sense of doom and despair. Intensely imagined and vividly directed, White Lightnin’ is a raw, rabid, howling hillbilly hell trip that doesn’t let up.
Read Pamela Jahn’s interview with Dominic Murphy in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty to coincide with the release of biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, with articles on Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger among others. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!