[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.
Reynolds plays a moonshine-running superstar named Gator McKlusky (yes) who’s released from the Federal work farm to get the goods on the red- and fat-necked sheriff who murdered his kid brother; the Feds want the sheriff (Ned Beatty) because he sells protection to all the shiners in his county, of which he is undisputed ruler. Reynolds’s performance consists mainly of grinning boyishly and glancing somewhere between the rearview mirror and the camera lens as he tools through tall grass, police cordons, and thin air, although there are a couple of occasions when Burt Is Given a Chance to Really Act—whereupon he turns his back and talks softly. The script laces its Thunder Road stuff with truncated references to hippies ‘n’ protestors (Gator’s brother was a college kid), and Ned Beatty occasionally invokes the old-boy system that permits a Bogan County bandit-lawman to survive. But all that is just apologia and pretext for the real thing: standing on two wheels while the lone males in matinee auditoriums give unspontaneous whoops and remember the way they used to sit around at the Texaco station before they were drafted.
Direction: Joseph Sargent. Screenplay: William Norton. Cinematography: Edward Rosson. Music: Charles Bernstein. Production: Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner.
The Players: Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Matt Clark, Jennifer Billingsley, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, Diane Ladd.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson