Just because a story is fascinating, does that mean it is good? After all, mankind always expresses a kind of morbid curiosity with relation to tragedy or misfortune, but do those qualities alone make a narrative worth following? This is a question I found myself asking repeatedly during our time together. The story you tell is enthralling and engaging, but in a way that is almost entirely motivated by a desire to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, how many more insults to decency or reason can be found.
Still, the entire documentary genre is based upon the idea of exploiting human curiosity about the oddity or wonder of our world for entertainment and education, so I suppose in that respect you are a rousing success.
The White family of West Virginia is a study in the unchecked depravity of a people unmoored from any sense of social conscience or greater purpose. The history of their family is one of bloody violence, heinous crime, and petty mischief. There is no level of criminality to which they will not descend. Yet in this way, and primarily because of the actions of pseudo-patriarch Jesco, they have achieved a measure of fame in their home state.
You show us an intensive and unflinching portrait of this family’s life throughout the course of one year. We see and hear the stories behind their current circumstances. “The Miracle Woman” used to house orphans and castaways, giving them shelter and comfort. Now she lives alone with her pets, only to be visited by her miscreant children. The youngest generation is just beginning to have their own kids, yet is completely unsuited to the task of rearing children.
One the clan, just having given birth, immediately begins snorting crushed up prescription medication while still in the hospital. Her newborn baby is taken from her by Child Protective Services, and she begins a fledgling attempt to turn her life around for the sake of her child. This tale will become the single ray of light, the single movement toward “civilization” that we see, save for the only White to have left West Virginia. Surrounding it are tales of attempted murder, drug dealing and taking, and endless strings of philandering and cheating of all kinds.
Are you a good film? As I said, you hold the attention of an audience rapt. In a way, that is a the only victory necessary to be recommended. Do you do anything more, though? Do you use your form and your story as a means of enlightening us to some great thought or concept? Can the Whites be said to be indicative of the tenuous thread by which we all hang? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. Their situation and their attitudes seem so singular as to be alien upon reflection. If there is a greater meaning to your tale beyond exposure and curiosity regarding this clan of oddities, I cannot see it.
However, special mention must be made of one of your more laudable aspects. Though the White family could have served as an easy source of ridicule, could easily have been turned into a comical and stereotypical example of “hick” or “redneck” idiocy, you stay yourself from taking this path. The Whites are treated with an evenhandedness and a dispassion that few films would have managed. They rarely appear to be anything other than perhaps the most lowly and inconceivable of reprobates, but they only ever hang themselves. Even though there are interviews with lawyers and lawmen who have had experience with the Whites, their testamonies serve only to highlight and expound upon the mystery of the Whites, rather than the debauchery therein.
Who are the Whites? What made them this way? Will anything ever change them? I do not know, and you don’t try too hard to tell me. All you do is show me a world I can scarcely imagine or believe. I’m left reflecting upon my own feeling of humanity, juxtaposing it against theirs, and wondering where that line exists.
Brian J. Roan