February 26, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'White Lightnin' -- GRADE: B+

Review: 'White Lightnin' ' is a beast with bite

There's a crazy-dirty energy to "White Lightnin'" that's rarely seen in films, a raw beauty and awfulness that's both scary and exciting.

It's B-movie homage, art-house bloodletting, cultural expose and psycho salvation psalm all in one. You watch the movie and immediately start to wonder -- who are these guys?

They are a bunch of unknowns, except for the clever casting of Carrie Fisher in her best role in decades. But these unknowns -- chiefly director Dominic Murphy and actor Edward Hogg -- are on fire.

"White Lightnin' " is a faux biopic that follows the life of one Jescoe White, a bad boy born in rural Appalachia who finds brief salvation as a mountain-dancing fool. But the devil inside him never lets go.

That devil is evident from the beginning as the young Jescoe (played with surly wisdom by Owen Campbell) inhales any deadly substance -- gasoline, lighter fluid, paint thinner -- he can get access to.

This sets him off on a continual loop of juvenile prison and insane asylum visits where what's left of his mind and soul get pummeled regularly. Young Jescoe is always either getting high, getting in trouble or in some wretched institution.

All of which mightily disappoints Jescoe's father, D. Ray (Muse Watson), a man famous for his mountain dancing ability, a skill he's able to pass to his son during a brief period when the boy's brain isn't completely fried.

The years pass, D. Ray is murdered, Jescoe sets about dancing professionally, eventually hooking up with an older woman (Fisher) who abandons her family and moves into a trashy trailer with him.

Life is good. Except the devil can't leave Jescoe alone.

Playing the grown Jescoe, British actor Hogg manifests both the charisma of a backwoods Elvis and the jitters of a hillbilly Charles Manson. This is the kind of role that makes Hollywood notice an actor.

But it's director Murphy, working from a script by Eddy Moretti and Shane Smith, who makes "White Lightnin'" crackle. From the drawling narration to the near black-and-white tone to the fades that end every scene, Murphy manages to meld biker movie grease, dirty "Deliverance" clichés and the quasi-documentary feel of a British ghetto film into a beast that bites.

"White Lightnin'" plays the Burton Theatre in Detroit this weekend, another example of the fascinating, off-the-beaten-path programming going on there. True movie lovers take note.