The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan
: Craig Brewer
: Craig Brewer
: John Singleton, Stephanie Allain
: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran, David Banner, Michael Raymond-James

Most movies are made like fish sticks – all the ingredients are mashed into one shape, and to have more than one flavor in it is anathema. Craig Brewer’s
Black Snake Moan is like the blues music that fills its soundtrack – messy, raw, and full of conflicting tones and emotions. Suffering sometimes turns funny. Love turns murderously angry. Ache is not an enemy to be purged but family to be bound to.

Sometimes it seems too pretty or clean with its bright photography and squared-off dialogue scenes. The characters’ costumes are iconic, overtly-designed, none of them look like they’ve been worn before. Themes and imagery are whipped around in the most improbable orientations, then left unaddressed. The whole experience is loud and impolite.

After awhile you become grateful for it, because what look like blemishes or poses are part of the point. It does not want easy sympathy. It does not want to iron out the kinks. And, most of all, it does not want every bite to taste like fish stick.
Black Snake Moan is a blues movie, it’s submerging itself in hurt to look for that one perfect pop of guitar that reminds you you’re alive. If you’re ready for it, you’ll find it.

The story is about two people who are in a lot of pain. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a farmer and blues musician who hung up his guitar, is in a fury over his wife leaving him for another, and who the other is just hurts more. And Rae (Christina Ricci) is trying to be faithful to Ronnie (singer Justin Timberlake, not up to all the challenges but better than you’d predict), a young man she truly loves who’s shipping out to Iraq. But there is some agonizing noise inside her (we hear it as the roaring drone of cicadas) she quiets with sex, and seemingly within minutes of his departure she’s up to her old tricks.

These are people you don’t see often in American movies; which prefer, if people must suffer at all, that they do it in pretty ways. Black Snake Moan is about people whose lives may never pass beyond the boundaries of their small Southern town, whose livelihood depends on how many bushels they sold today, and whose ambitions might not be larger than getting the truck fixed next month. There is a lot of despair in a life like this, a lot of pain; but contrary to fearful assumption, that’s not all that’s there. There are homemade dinners, and the friends we can choose. And on those nights when the hardness is too much, or it feels like the Devil’s out there walking in the dark (a harrowing sensation this movie knows and evokes), you’ve always got the blues to save you.

Rae’s self-annihilation eventually puts her in Lazarus’ path, and in his need to find an answer to his own suffering, he decides he can cure this girl. And so he chains her to the radiator.

This is a movie that cares enough to be specific to its characters. It is not prescribing bondage and biscuit-making lessons as a universal cure for sex addiction. It wants to know what Rae needs, and how what Lazarus needs informs his attempts to help her. It also has the curiosity to let the situation evolve, to show us how other characters perceive it, and let us take surprise and sorrow from their own decisions. In short – it wants to go somewhere, and will do so recklessly at times, because that makes the trip more spicy.

Samuel L. Jackson, who is 58, does not often play up to his age. For a man gifted with his natural vigor and cool this is no crime, but it often conceals his true talents. The naked magnetism, the almost fearsome charisma he showed in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou often gets veiled by his self-effacing embrace of his legacy from Pulp Fiction, Shaft and the like. Here, he picks up a guitar, sings about blood and heartache, his head looms large in the frame and you remember just what an electrifying presence he has. His eyes look like they could punch holes through you.

Ricci, too, is a revelation. It’s a cliché to say actresses who play while underdressed are being “brave”, what is truly brave about her treatment of Rae is her refusal to judge Rae’s weakness, or to excuse it. This is a hard girl to like, with her temper, her foul mouth, and the way her mania flips on like a switch. But Ronnie adores her, she loves him, and he has his own secret flaws she wants to devote herself to. That’s what a rounded character looks like.

As an actress she’s demonstrated intelligence and a flair with dialogue back to her days in the Addams Family pictures and the wicked The Opposite of Sex. But here she shows something deeper; an abandonment to the material, a trust in the story and her abilities. It is the same thing that allows musicians to jam together, because it is beyond knowing what notes to play, it’s about being able to feel what’s true in the moment.

She and Jackson bond in a way I don’t see often enough in film – based not in any of the customary tropes it could have fallen into: Father-Daughter, Teacher-Student, May-December Romantics, but on a blend that seems crafted just for them. These two people, of all the people on the planet, are equipped to help each other right now, and some force puts them together.

Writer-Director Brewer broke out of Tennessee and achieved Hollywood success with Hustle & Flow, but he has not abandoned his regional roots. He cares about applying the language of cinema to them so we can all taste a bit of his home. I feel confident he’s met people like the ones in Black Snake Moan, that he grew up understanding their wants. And in this messy, wonderful movie, crafted with careful attention to every detail, he whips those memories into something that really cooks.


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