Film Review: White Lightnin'

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama
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BERLIN -- "White Lightnin' " takes hillbilly chic about as far as it can go. British commercials director Dominic Murphy dives into Appalachian poor white trash communities like a sex tourist newly arrived in Bangkok. With the passion of a true fetishist, he revels in images of poverty, drugs, perversion and torture.

The intended audience for this film is Hollywood since "White Lightnin' " is proof this first-time feature director can sell images and provoke controversy. It's apparently worked since he and his producers reportedly have signed with WMA. Let's hope that means festivals can now stop screening the movie. Certainly this cultural slumming has no real audience.

Make no mistake, the guy's got talent. The use of black-and-white-ish, hand-held cinematography with only a little color bleeding through, the blackouts to suggest a protagonist slipping in and out of consciousness, the great use of kick-ass music -- all keep you in a movie that is repellent in every other way.

The worst thing about "White Lightnin' " is that the whole thing is a weird lie. The film, written by Eddy Moretti and Shane Smith, is "inspired" by the life of Jesco White, the last of the Appalachian Mountain dancers, about whom West Virginia PBS made a documentary called "The Dancing Outlaw" in 1991.

The man is still very much alive and is an odd sort of hero and muse for a whole bunch of American bands. But Moretti and Smith would rather imagine Jesco as a psychopathic, mentally deficient drug addict and drunk who murders a couple of similar delinquents and then kills a cop before staging his own self-mutilating suicide. That Jesco would permit his life to be so used is its own kind of perversion one supposes.

Jesco, born in 1956, did apparently grow up in utter poverty, huffing lighter fluid and gasoline and generally destroying brains cells from an early age. His dad, D. Ray White, a great mountain dancer, taught him the folk dance, which is a kind of hillbilly tap.

The movie has Jesco emerge not from any school but from prisons and mental institutions as a total nut case. As he himself says, in a narration coming from the moments before his own death, he is always "one second away from bad thoughts."

These bad thoughts cover a multitude of sins -- from pulling guns and knives to terrorize people to imagining various ways to butcher a man. British actor Edward Hogg plays the dancing outlaw like a recurring villain in a cheesy horror film series. When not dancing, the guy's brain is all short-circuited wiring. His wide-open eyes read "mad."

The love of his life is played with some subtlety by Carrie Fisher. Like everyone in the movie, she hasn't much sense. But her seeing something in Jesco is the only humanity the movie gives him.

Fire-and-brimstone sermons ring throughout the movie, like the voice of a hillbilly god, preaching against the devil that races through Jesco's blood. Except for these brief interludes, the director can't get enough of the exoticism of Appalachian trailer park trash. He fixates on gross-out moments -- an insane man defecates on the floor or Jesco makes body tattoos with sharp objects -- that play like money shots in a porno.

Why the filmmakers want to turn a real human being, seriously flawed but seriously talented as he is, into a sick joke is a genuine question. Why anyone wants to lavish real talent on such a pathetic character is yet another.

Is it fair to suggest cynicism plays a role here? You gotta give Hollywood something it hasn't seen before if you want William Morris to sign you.

Production: U.K. Film Council/Salt Co./Film and Music Entertainment/Mainframe Prods./Vice Films
Cast: Edward Hogg, Carrie Fisher, Muse Watson, Owen Campbell, Clay Steakley
Director: Dominic Murphy
Screenwriters: Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith
Producers: Sam Taylor, Mike Downey
Director of photography: Tim Maurice-Jones
Production designer: Ivo Husnjak
Music: Nick Zinner
Costume designer: Blanka Budak
Editor: Sam Sneade
Sales: Salt Co

No rating, 91 minutes