White Lightnin' Movie Review
In rural Appalachia, Jesco White (Campbell) is such a wild child that his daddy D-Ray (Watson) chains him to his bed so he won't sniff lighter fluid. Seeing his son as destined for a life in mental hospitals, D-Ray teaches him folk-dancing as an outlet. And after D-Ray is murdered, Jesco (now Hogg) uses makes a living as a dancer. Amid a life of drunken bar brawls, he falls for an older married woman (Fisher) who leaves her family for him. But Jesco is too obsessed with avenging D-Ray's death to have a normal life.
British filmmaker Murphy totally immerses us in a white trash environment: it's almost overwhelming not only in the imagery on display but also the attitudes that fill the story. Jesco's life is astonishingly brutal, filmed in an almost monochrome style with blacked-out screens to punctuate the story and mannered accents to heighten the local flavour (it was shot in West Virginia, Ohio and, of all places, Croatia).
All of this is extremely clever, building an atmosphere that's oppressive and disturbing. Throughout the story, Jesco's descent through addiction and violence is extremely unsettling, so much so that the film feels almost exaggerated and forced (even though it probably isn't). Hogg's performance is completely unnerving, capturing Jesco's pitch-black demons and contrasting them with his smiley dancing and slightly too-passionate romance. And while it's great to see Fisher on screen in such a vivid role, even she can't give the film the hint of humanity it so badly needs.
As it progresses, the film gets almost unbelievably grotesque, from the nightmarish flashback showing D-Ray's hideous death to Jesco's feverish quest for redemption. In the end, it's so outrageous that it feels almost like a corny comedy played dead straight. It's also not really about addiction or mental illness at all, but about a young man born in a bad place. And while it's a very difficult film to connect with on any level, we can't help but be impressed with Murphy's artistic achievement.
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