Black Snake MoanReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/15/07 02:56:24
Craig Brewer has my respect - this is his second film in a row that has delivered more than I expected. That's impressive, really - after all, not only does his new film have a couple of actors I like in Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, but it's the new film from the maker of "Hustle & Flow". Anyone who can get me to like a movie about a pimp trying to make it as a rapper is going to have high expectations the next time around.This time, Brewer gives us a couple of people with self-control trouble. Rae (Ricci) is a nymphomaniac, collapsing with sexual need as soon as her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is out of sight on the way to his hitch in the National Guard; she's soon looking for relief from others. Lazarus (Jackson) is a farmer who used to be a blues singer. His wife has just left him for his best friend - whom Lazarus nearly kills in a fit of temper when they meet up in a bar. Their paths collide when a messed-up Rae laughs at the wrong guy's manhood and his response is to beat her and leave her for dead near Lazarus's front door. Lazarus nurses her back to health, but is determined to cure more than her cough and bruises - even if that means chaining her to his radiator.
The movie's set-up promises exploitation, and there's no shortage of shots that would make good pulp-magazine covers, as those who've seen its advertising will attest. Brewer spends some time delivering on that promise, too, with Jackson howling about getting right with God and the camera tracing every inch of Ricci's curvy, barely-dressed body as she practically sweats sex. You want the Angry Black Man and the Wanton White (Trash) Woman, you've got it. Or at least you do on the surface; the film's not about race at all. It just uses the strong emotional response race can create to get off to a running start. It's the same with the sex; the audience that hoots a little at Rae falling down to pleasure herself even as Ronnie drives away may look back on that scene and see more despair than sex appeal.
That's not to imply that the film isn't about sex. It is - it's about sex and anger and, most of all, it's about fear. The first time Rae tries to seduce Lazarus, he bolts from his house like the injured girl half his size is a dangerous beast, and he chains her up because that's how he's dealt with everything that threatens to overpower him, especially his own jealousy and weakness: Lock it up, keep it on the farm where hopefully no-one else can be touched by it. Rae, meanwhile, surrenders to it; watch how, the first time someone who could get her help arrives at Lazarus's, she initially hides, but soon rips her top off and throws herself at him without explanation; it's the only way she knows how to respond. And then there's Ronnie, who is simply paralyzed.
Part of what's great about the film is that the characters don't necessarily get past their demons - they just learn how to deal with them. Not the most original message, maybe, but the way Brewer gets the point across is kind of masterful: After all the obvious titillation, the film's sexiest scene comes about two thirds of the way through, when Rae's just one of dozens packed in a hot room listening to Lazarus play. The blues he's singing have the angriest lyrics heard yet, and everybody in the town, it seems, is sweaty and writhing around the dance floor. The music is good enough that it's what grabs the audience's attention, so the message that this is a safe way to get everything out is more or less implied. And on top of all that, Brewer is using what's going on to advance the plot, as another character misinterprets what's happening.
By this point, the characters have earned that sort of understanding. Samuel L. Jackson is in fine form, slightly slumped and worn down from age but still with a fire in his belly when the moment calls for it. It's impressive to see him pulled between righteous determination and nervousness; he tends to apologize after exploding. Ricci makes Rae abrasive and difficult to like at first; her bad reputation feeds a miserable attitude, and even the audience sees the hurt she carries and abuse she takes, they probably won't like her at first. She does win us over, though, when we see that she's doing the best she can. Justin Timberlake is absent for much of the film, but his part is crucial; how well he works with Ricci compared to how awkward the character seems with others gives us an idea of how important their relationship is. John Cothran Jr. plays one of my favorite movie preachers, a voice of reason far more concerned with Earth than Heaven. S. Epatha Merkerson brings a great deal of warmth to the film as one of a couple women who don't think Lazarus's wife leaving him is such a bad thing.Everything works together well, from the interviews with a real old bluesman that bookend the movie to seemingly disposable scenes between Lazarus and Rae. For something that looked to be little more than cheap provocation, "Black Snake Moan" certainly delivers much more than expected.
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