He's not conversant with the black snake moan, but Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is very familiar with the "white worm smirk of barely suppressed mirth."
Everything is hotter down south.
The movie: a solid B.
The Hype? A+.
Facts of the Case
Down and out bluesman Lazarus (Samuel Freaking Jackson, Pulp Fiction) has a lot on his mind. You know the drill if you've ever heard a country music song; Lazarus has had a "my wife took my truck and ran off with my best friend while kicking my dog in the teeth" kind of week.
While mowing over Rose's Roses, Lazarus happens upon the still form of Rae (Christina Ricci, No Vacancy). Rae is depressed because the one decent guy she's ever fornicated with (Justin Timberlake, Saturday Night Live) is leaving for Iraq. Ronnie's sleazy friend moves in on Rae, knowing her tendency to jump any living thing like an alley cat in heat. Let's just say it ends badly for Rae.
It is no picnic for Lazarus either. He's a middle-aged black man stuck in the Tennessee backwater with a beaten, half-nude white girl who has a fever—and unhealthy sexual urges. "I just found her, Sheriff, honest" isn't likely to work. So Lazarus cons his good friend Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson, Law and Order) into helping Rae. But when the preacher (John Cothran Jr., The Cell) drops by, there will be a reckoning.
If you've heard of Black Snake Moan—and you probably have—then you know one defining fact: Lazarus chains Rae to a radiator. As much as that should be a spoiler, and as much as it grossly skews your expectations of the actual movie, you can't help but know that in advance. Hell, you probably saw Samuel holding the chain on the cover art up there in the corner before you even got to this sentence. Or else you saw a movie poster, or heard people talking, or (God forbid) you got singed by the marketing campaign. But there it is, out in the open: A tall black man chains a curvy, rebel-flag-wearing, blonde, white slut to his radiator—and she kneels at his feet in gratitude. Southern Gothic, meet Blaxploitation.
Writer/director Craig Brewer is to blame for all this. He crafted an image so inflammatory, so memorable, and so distinctive that the marketing people must have been drooling on themselves. And the reality is all of those things: inflammatory, memorable, and distinctive (there was probably even a little drool mixed in.) Black Snake Moan milks this teat pretty hard, from an over-the-top tug of war with the chain to some almost Neo-classical still imagery of Ricci reclining on the couch with its monolithic links biting into her naked flesh. The chain metaphor is the setpiece, the triumph of Black Snake Moan.
Unfortunately, though it caused a stir, the advanced publication of this image inherently prevents you from appreciating the movie as it unfolds. That is, if you're a red-blooded guy like me who is just kinky enough to be intrigued by the words "nude Christina Ricci" and "chained to a radiator" in the same sentence. If you're politically or socially sensitive, said image is probably enough to prevent you from ever seeing Black Snake Moan, or if you do it will ensure you don't enjoy the film. My Black Snake Moan viewing arc was subliminally influenced by an internal monologue that went something like this:
waiting for Sam to chain Christina to the radiator >> oh boy, here it comes >> this is trippy >> that's it??
If you can get past the marketing and the omnipresent central image, Black Snake Moan is a well-acted and exquisitely scored, yet ultimately dissatisfying picture about the ineffable sadness of human beings.
The acting and the music vie for top honors, but we'll start with the soundtrack because it is the foundation of Black Snake Moan. Brewer and his Memphis-based buddies have reinterpreted the blues for this film. They take old school blues tunes (such as the eponymous "Black Snake Moan" by Blind Lemon Jefferson) and crank them to 11. These are not glossy, soulless remakes. Rather, they are reinterpretations that get to the hearts of the songs—but present them with a consistent, modern, Southern Gothic vibe. It is difficult to describe music with words; the best I can do is say that the electric, slide-infused riffs are weary, sweaty, and pregnant with tension and suffering. They also evoke something mythical, a supernatural presence that dogs or uplifts the human spirit. Blind Lemon Jefferson thought of the Black Snake Moan as a subvocal expression of suffering that we've all encountered. Here, the Black Snake Moan is an existential cry plugged into an amp; it dominates Laz's actions.
Though many talented musicians contributed to the soundtrack, the most obvious is Samuel Jackson. There's no movie trickery at work: Jackson sings and plays songs (like "Stackolee") live for the film. Sure, it might have been recorded in a studio, but Jackson's fingers are on the frets and his vocal chords are producing these plaintive cries. The audio crescendo in the film is when Lazarus plays "Black Snake Moan" for Rae. The song is great, but the scene is made by the audio setup. A storm brews slowly throughout the evening. The rear surrounds are used to great effect; a thunderclap will begin in the left main and rumble through the left surround and over your head to the right. The effect is so convincing that I literally stopped the movie several times to check outside for a storm. It is delightful to encounter a track so clear and convincing that it renews your enthusiasm for the surround format. When Jackson growls out the tune, it is the capper on an expertly executed audio setup.
Discovering that talented actors are even more talented than you gave them credit for is always fun. In Samuel Jackson's case, his performance is a "hand me my wallet—it's the one that says bad muthafucka on it"-level characterization. If his lackluster turn as Mace Windu tarnished the Jackson mystique, that mystique has been polished back to its original shine by Lazarus.
The other half of the duo is equally impressive. Christina Ricci has always exploited her wide eyes and displayed an amazing ability to snarl in meaningful ways. She has always been an enigmatic, compelling actor who, whether by choice or typecasting, has performed in a steady stream of offbeat movies. But her role in this is neither quirky nor cute: it is a hellacious, predatory performance that is not aloof in the least. Ricci gets into the dirt of her character and rolls around in it. Sure, that exposes her breasts once or twice, but seriously—they are not the focus of this film. She's more seductive when clothed and radiating a primal, unhealthy heat, flipping you the bird while daring you to rip off her painted-on Daisy Dukes. When Ricci shifts gears to Rae's self-deprecating appraisal of her own life and a confrontation with her mother, the revelations are heart-wrenching. The supporting cast (most notably John Cothran, Jr., S. Epatha Merkerson, and yes, Justin Timberlake) provides a pitch-perfect sounding board for Lazarus and Rae's dynamic.
Oddly enough, though the movie is predicated on their chemistry and both actors lay their hearts on the table, Brewer seems unsure where to take the relationship. I'm tempted to wonder whether they should have had sex, or at least Rae should have attempted a few more rounds of seduction. The film practically begs for some form of sexual release. It doesn't come. But sex isn't really the issue. Lazarus proclaims to Rae that he's "gonna suffer" her. Their relationship is antagonistic and darkly co-dependent. Yet somehow Lazarus morphs into a father figure and Rae into a mature, demure wife without any clear indication of why the metamorphosis took place.
Perhaps Brewer was going for something indescribable and the nuances didn't all make it into the narrative. Black Snake Moan is thematically ambitious: Brewer tries to portray deep suffering and healing without relying on trite cliches. Music, heavily colorized flashback sequences, and surreal imagery combine to show us that Black Snake Moan is metaphorical. As a resident of the South (North Carolina, across the Appalachians from Brewer's Tennessee) I can appreciate his hyper-stylized take on Southern imagery. The rage; the uncomfortable juxtapositions of race, social class, religious preference, and culture; the lurid and redemptive details all ring true. This is not the real South, but a valid representation. Even so, Brewer's message lurks on the periphery without making a strong case for itself. This helps explain the explosive accusations of racism, socially conservative misogyny, and sensationalism that people throw at the film—and its equally vociferous defense.
The end result is that Brewer's third film is thematically ambitious, technically superior, and finely acted…but doesn't quite connect the dots, which leaves a vague sense of missed opportunity. If it weren't for his audacious imagery, and the marketing exploitation of that imagery, Black Snake Moan might have reached more of the right people and been built up less (or at least not built up to be a pure exploitation tale). With its clash of cultures, incestuous rape, thunderstorms, flashbacks, wish-fulfilling nudity, and deep sense of foreboding, Black Snake Moan shares much with Sam Raimi's The Gift. Though Raimi achieved a more memorable and successful blend of those elements, Brewer makes a more ambitious attempt to describe human connections. Black Snake Moan is certainly good enough to ensure Brewer another fat paycheck, and I look forward to seeing his encore.
Paramount has thrown a lot of their weight behind the film. It has a great website, high production values, and the aforementioned high-caliber cast. The DVD is given a pristine transfer, precise and dynamic soundtrack, and a decent slate of extras. Brewer's commentary is a mix of production notes, backstage anecdotes, thematic insights, and deconstruction. He builds up his actors without fawning and expresses sincere appreciation for the opportunity he was given. It is an amiable, informative listen. Some of the deleted scenes were deservedly cut because they spell out too much and ruin some of the mystique. Even though I complained about a lack of explanation, spelling everything out would have been a graver error. The making of featurette is a decent example of its cohort, but the two musical featurettes are better. Music powers the film, literally and thematically, and understanding the roots of that music is worthwhile.
Brewer is proving himself as an ambitious, risk-taking director with a keen sense of visual imagery and the symbiotic relationship between a film and its soundtrack. Black Snake Moan will not be known as his masterpiece, but as a defining step in his career path. If its seedy setup, sultry middle act, and uplifting (yet still despondent) finale don't quite match up with each other, great acting and great music compensate. Ricci bares it all, albeit briefly, and to supplement a winning performance. Jackson returns to his best screen presence and throws in some musical chops to boot. The unifying thread in all this is an exploration of human hurt and healing that might strike a deep chord in you—if you aren't too focused on the film's exploitative elements.
Guilty of giving the court an itch it can't quite define.
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Scales of Justice
• Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan
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