Fans of alt-country musician Jim White know he's a true oddball genius, a Southerner who's equal parts Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Johnny Knoxville. The lyrics of his songs are loaded with fire-and-brimstone tales of love, death, sin and redemption. You could spend weeks trying to figure it all out; luckily, at least one of White's fans, British filmmaker Andrew Douglas, decided to go to the source to document the inspiration for it all.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus takes its name from White's debut album, and attempts to provide a sort of audiovisual companion to the man's music. This isn't your typical talking-head interview documentary, with narration and names listed on the screen. It's more of a musical mood piece where outgoing, mysterious Southerners tell tall tales set to intoxicating visuals and plaintive, live bluegrass tunes. Douglas' stylish movie may be hard to penetrate and more than a little frustrating, but even when it doesn't work, it's utterly hypnotic.
If you've seen Richard Linklater's talky, philosophical Waking Life, or enjoy the more meandering musical segments of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, then you'll feel right at home here. Douglas' camera follows White as he buys a shitty old Chevy, loads it up with his guitar and his thrift-store wardrobe and heads out to the dustiest reaches of the Deep South. Traipsing through unidentified small towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, he makes observations both profound and cryptic, and talks to various pool players, truck stop waitresses and trailer park denizens. They all have something colorfully bizarre to say, and the film has been edited to highlight their deepest thoughts on Jesus and redemption.
There's never any condescension on the part of the filmmakers, but there's such an emphasis on the strange and the mystical that it starts to grate on the nerves a bit. When White smashes an ice cream cone with his hand and explains how it's like a small town ("This part here is the criminal element," he says), it sounds like utter nonsense. Luckily, the movie is loaded with impromptu musical numbers that distract from its more ponderous, willfully weird moments. Such little-known alt-country luminaries as the Handsome Family and Trailer Bride are introduced playing their songs against odd backdrops: the backseat of a car, a garage, a barbershop. Even a non-Southerner David Johansen of the New York Dolls pops up in a motel, hacking out tunes on an acoustic guitar.
The look of the film is gorgeous. A former commercial photographer, Douglas shoots every hound dog, church and cascading mullet with poetic elegance, avoiding the wobbly look common to most documentaries. He may not be interested in probing the true nature of Southern angst this is, after all, the same man who directed last year's big-budget remake of The Amityville Horror but when toothless red-state residents are presented this reverently, it hardly matters. About the only thing missing from Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a cameo from Billy Bob Thornton.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 5 and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 6. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.