Friday, March 23, 2007

Film Review #92: Black Snake Moan
Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Timberlake

It’s one of those moments of raunchy splendor that – once seen – clarifies how far short most similar efforts fall. As Rae Duell, a bleached blonde Christina Ricci strides down a sleepy Tennessee road in the dappled morning sunlight under a canopy of branches. The Black Keys’ growling blues instrumental, “When the Lights Go Out” sets her pace. She’s got on her cowboy boots, cut-off jeans so tight she couldn’t walk at all if she hadn’t cut off the legs, and a scrap of tee-shirt on which dueling Confederate and Yankee flags nominally cover her breasts. There’s a duel going on in Rae’s heart too, of course, along with her dual nature. (And be patient, because soon a boozy night football game will reveal that tee-shirt’s promise in the tattooed floral vine coiling around her right nipple.) Rae’s got a little runway kick in each step and a dainty, almost prim smirk – Ricci’s repertoire with the muscles around her mouth alone is delicately remarkable – and pretty soon along behind her comes one of those huge green mowing tractors with a cab like you see all summer chugging endlessly up and down on interstate highway medians, blaring its horn. Never mind what it’s doing on this narrow country lane. Rae never turns around, steps aside or breaks her rhythm when she throws the driver her finger.

Rae must have that same electric guitar going on in her head. The story is that Rae has flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse that manifest as staggeringly voracious sexual – well, “fits” would be the closest word. But as in Hustle and Flow (2005), writer/director Craig Brewer’s longer, deeper concern is how music patches back together even the most bottomed out and woebegone. In Hustle and Flow, so easily dismissed by some as manipulative, Terrence Howard’s pimp DJay sees Hip Hop as his way out. As in this film, Brewer nails a certain type of breakable-glass women who – if they live long enough – crowd drug rehabs, struggling just not to storm out the door about twenty times a day. Now Brewer’s working on a third film in this evolving grand tour of Memphis-area musical styles, Maggie Lynn, about country honky-tonk.

Although Black Snake Moan begins with archival footage of legendary bluesman Son House defining “the only real blues is between a man and a woman” – that clip picks up later, intruding somewhat ham-fistedly, when a shooting seems imminent – the film is dedicated to northern rural Mississippi hill country bluesman R.L. Burnside, who died in Memphis in 2005. While Brewer establishes Rae’s predicament – she’s been left alone by Ronnie, who’s off to the National Guard, and soon tempts the idea of living long enough by getting beaten up and thrown in the road – he also overlays the action with a fat blues soundtrack and deftly cuts in scenes of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who will take Rae in. Lazarus’ world crumbles when his wife Rose walks off with his younger, spiffier brother. Lazarus’ gesture of defiance against fate also involves a tractor, when he lays waste to his wife Rose’s rose garden. Besides putting a preacher in the movie named Reverend R.L. (John Cothran), Brewer puts Lazarus in a real juke joint playing with Burnside’s slide guitar sideman Kenny Brown and grandson Cedric Burnside for a rousing, sweaty finale.

We cannot go further here without mentioning two things. One is that Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie Morgan (Justin Timberlake, fine and surprising here) have matching anxiety attacks. He leaves Rae in a heap on the lawn outside their trailer when he goes off to the National Guard. He arms them with sweet, pitiful black plastic watches that are supposed to beep at the same hour every night so they can think of each other. Instead, Rae’s going at it with strapping Tehronne (David Banna) within an hour and Ronnie falls apart on the firing range. It’s one measure of how circumscribed is their existence that Ronnie clarifies his anxiety attacks by jogging his friend Gil’s memory, “You know, like when I used to get sick before the games in school.” When Ronnie says, “You know Rae’s history,” even if many in the audience would use that term, Ronnie probably would not.

Secondly, there’s that chain Lazarus uses to tether Rae. Lurid pulp fiction-style poster graphics of a black man standing over a kneeling blond in chains preceded the film, priming the pump. That image marketed the CD soundtrack too, out two months before the film itself. That image practically double-dared a whole slew of groaning reviews: “Tied to a radiator for her own good!” That image drives the several raw ponderings between men in the film about what ails Rae and it prompts Lazarus’ disavowal, “My wick dry on this one!” Actually Jackson and Ricci have some wonderfully choreographed scenes around this chain, as when he takes her for a walk in his garden and who’s leading who passes back and forth between them. Just the very idea of that chain has us buffaloed. And it’s got every character in the movie buffaloed too. It almost brings on hot flashes. Notice that in the midst of such high salaciousness, Brewer manages a counterweight in the shyly gentle exchange between Lazarus and the matronly pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson).

There is a lot wrong with this movie. In fact, I had to go back a second time to figure out how come I kept thinking about some scenes and telling other people to go see it. I’d say, “Here’s an odd one!” as if this excused a momentary soft spot for trash. Preposterous and overwrought, Black Snake Moan is also the early work of a filmmaker with big enough ideas to sin boldly.

This review appeared in on 3/24/07.