“My life’s been a joke, a party and a tragedy,” opines Jesco White (Edward Hogg), the drug-addled, nimble-footed narrator in this blazing, paranoid fusion of biopic and delirious fantasy-gone-wrong. Preaching with the kind of countrified twang usually reserved for the likes of Dolly Parton, Jesco recounts his youth spent in the trailer trash wilds of Appalachia. The tearaway son of infamous dancer D Ray White (Muse Watson), Jesco’s drug-meddling took flight on the cusp of puberty, when his lighter fluid huffin’ resulted in incarceration at a reform school that did anything but.
Yes, this could very well be the Borat of Appalachia – a place not so much painted as grimed with the iconography of rough living and white trash destitution. Inspired by the real life story of Jesco ‘The Dancing Outlaw’ White, all the White hallmarks are there (the addiction, the dancing), but also something else. Something dreamed up out of a dank place of fire and brimstone. In the evocative mould of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, White Lightnin’ is obsessed with mood and the possibilities of character free from sterile factoids. It’s a Wikipedia version of a life freely edited by mad men.
So as the film leaves behind Jesco’s teenage years, it also takes leave of the facts. From reform school, a teenage Jesco finds himself institutionalised at the Bennett State Hospital, where he stays for another decade. And it’s here that we first meet Ed Hogg. Wide-eyed and naïve, he’s the lovechild of Jared Leto and David Tennant, at once meek and withdrawn, then boiling over with a red, screaming rage that wreaks 10 shades of hell.
It’s a blinding performance from a one-time Heartbeat guest starrer. Inviting us into Jesco’s damaged, demented mind, Hogg goes to deep, dark places – before flashing a pitch perfect humorous aside. “Don’ fuck with mah fuckin’ hay-ed!” he howls at lover Cilla (a towering Carrie Fisher), meat cleaver in hand. Then, reprimanded for his profanity, he timidly reiterates, “She’s effin’ with mah effin’ hay-ed!”
Former documentary and short film director Dominic Murphy clearly revels in upping the ante for his feature debut. Blanching colour from the screen, leaving just the faintest memory of hue, Murphy confidently presents his visuals as nightmarish extensions of Jesco’s warped inner-mind. Blackouts, flickering, over-processed montage and distorted imagery are all paired with a soundtrack that gradually becomes more and more erratic, charting Jesco’s horrific descent into insanity.
“There’s a time when you’ve lived in your own head for too long that y’all have the privilege to go insane,” Jesco cheerfully mentions. And, at the halfway mark, White Lightnin’ fearlessly follows Jesco into his lunacy, entering a ponderous, dreamlike state that cultivates a cantankerous spirit of unease.
Seething with blighted fervour and over-ripe with religious wrath, the wild, elemental imagery generates something truly disturbing. With its strange religious overtones and inevitably fitful conclusion, White Lightnin’ is elusive and bleak, but magnetic filmmaking.
Anticipation: Jesco who? A film about mountain dancing? Next! 2
Enjoyment: Feverish, brilliantly evocative and effortlessly unsettling. 4
In Retrospect: Fantastic performances and a creeping sense of doom make this one to watch. Pure lightning in a bottle. 4