BLACK SNAKE MOAN
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenwriter: Craig Brewer
Producers: John Singleton, Stephanie Allain
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake
USA, 2006, 118 min.
*Writer/director Craig Brewer follows up his Sundance hit Hustle & Flow with another pulsing journey into the heart of a southern musician. This time he taps into the essence of the blues to concoct an intoxicating tale of a man hell-bent on saving a lost soul, and in the process, himself.
In a small Tennessee town, two unlikely souls meet at the sticky crossroads between rage and love. Lying beaten on the side of the road is Rae, who has developed a reputation for an insatiable "itch" for sex. Her rescuer is Lazarus, an ex-blues guitarist who is used to life's relentless refrains of trouble and sorrow. Desperate for a change himself, Lazarus goes to extremes to "cure" Rae of her wicked ways. But to get to the deep, dark bottom of Rae's problems, Lazarus has to face the demons in both their hearts.
Brewer is a virtuoso at blending music into his films. They pulsate with the beats and rhythms of pain, love, sex, death, and life. Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson engage in a brave on-screen duet of charged emotions and intense physicality. All this combines with rousing imagery that both titillates and challenges to help Black Snake Moan unfold a raw and revealing morality tale that doesn't deal in black and white but rather transcendent shades of blue.
*Summary by Trevor Groth, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
This was just a hot and sweaty slice of Southern celluloid. This was easily the most enjoyable screening I attended at Sundance this year. Black Snake Moan covers a couple very controversial and exploitative topics, but handles them as well as anyone can expect. One would think that a film about a black man in the South who keeps a white female nymphomaniac chained half-naked to a radiator in order to ‘cure’ her might cause a ruckus. I look back at what I just wrote and it sounds awful. However, the tone of the chained scenes, the music, and the quality of the acting save the film from treading too far into B-movie exploitation.
Might as well get this out of the way, Christina Ricci’s Rae is near-naked for a majority of the film and totally naked for the rest. She attacks this role with passion and a ferocity you would never imagine from the little girl from Adams Family. She is so intense and single-minded; it is just fascinating to see a famous actor throw herself into such a risqué character as a southern nymphomaniac. Finally, Rae is just so damned attractive! Throughout the film, she is posed in various classical poses, setting up a nice contradiction between respectful, full-bodied women of statues past, and her blatantly sexual, dirty, and rail-thin modern form.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Lazarus is the other part of the duo, and his part is integral into making this film stay sympathetic. He walks a very fine line between his attraction to Rae and his devotion to salvation and the Bible. Chaining this girl to a radiator could come off so much creepier than it does, but Lazarus really cares about saving this girl’s soul. In addition, he has to play guitar and sing, a couple beautiful blues and rhythm ballads which result in the two best scenes of the film. He also has some wonderful moments with Rae as she is going through some strangely Exorcist-like gyrations in sexual withdrawal. Lazarus combats his own fear of the monsters within Rae with a mixture of faith and blues.
The first great scene is a stormy night in Lazarus’ cabin, where Rae is going through sexual withdrawal, writhing on the floor and imagining demons at the door. Lazarus brings out his guitar, wielding it like a battleaxe, his rough voice and music protecting a cowering Rae from the storms and evil. It certainly comes off more like a lucid dream, but it is a tremendous sequence, that pushes the line of reality just far enough for one to believe in the redemptive powers of Lazarus’ guitar.
Craig Brewer did Hustle & Flow a couple years ago, a movie I admired, but ultimately thought was tremendously over-hyped. Black Snake Moan is a far superior film, due to its simpler story structure and attention to scene power. Plus, I like this kind of music better. You can also really feel the South in this film, or at least what one imagines the South to be if one has never been there. Everyone is sweaty all the time, enmeshed in blues and booze. I liked how whenever Rae took a swig from a bottle of beer, it always came spilling out of her mouth and down her neck. Sloppy and hot.
There are a few drawbacks, such as the debatable success of Justin Timberlake’s performance. I thought, similar to last year’s Alpha Dog, that he did a very good job. However, I could never see him as his character, and I’m not sure if that is his fault or mine. All I could see on the screen was JT, and it was a shame, because he did a pretty damn good job in his very challenging role. Also, Rae’s rehabilitation with Lazarus moves too quickly to be realistic. Obviously, the director wants to move on to other issues, but Rae‘s turn around seems far too sudden, and it is a little jarring, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I thought it would have been more appropriate for the final scene to be between Rae and Lazarus instead of Rae and JT in the car. Still effective though.The music is fantastic, and I would definitely grab this CD off the shelf. The Q & A after the screening was fun; all the actors and production team were beaming with pride at the premiere of their work. Very good flick, and I will definitely be catching it again when it comes out in March. I do find it strange that of all actors who attend Sundance, the only one I have seen at both Sundance 2006 and 2007 is Justin Timberlake. Huh.