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Redemption Song:
Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review


Friday, February 23, 2007

Black Snake Moan
Directed by Craig Brewer
(Paramount Vantage)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

Black Snake Moan, the second film to see major release from Hustle & Flow writer-director Craig Brewer, isn’t quite as I’d expected. That is to say, it is not satisfied to unabashedly trawl for Southern-culture-on-the-skids sleaze — this despite being heralded with a poster that’s tricked-up as sweat-crinkled “Horrors of White Slavery” pulp rag (black man holding a white woman on a chain: “Everything’s Hotter Down South!”); despite starring Samuel L. Jackson, whose appeal is largely predicated on camp Bad Mothafucka conceit; and despite packing a title that jacks the film’s race-baiting to “11” (yeah, it’s also a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but if you don’t think the blues doesn’t know a thing or two about entendre, you can have my jelly roll).

What I gleaned from Black Snake Moan’s trailer, unveiled in a prime spot before the joyless, synthetic exploitation of Snakes on a Plane, spelled pure grindhouse: a lithe, slatternly little Tennessee hoochie (Christina Ricci), just seething to drop her cut-offs for any swinging dick, winds up in the custody of a crusty, pop-eyed backwoods farmer with preacherman tendencies (Jackson) after she’s dumped on a dirt road beat-up, laced with Oxycontins and oozing strange jizz. He leashes her to his radiator, makes it his duty to make her good; she needs just as much to make him bad. You can just imagine the hothouse B & D scenario moving through a catalog of degradations before upending into the inevitable revenge holocaust.

If so, you’ve bit on Brewer’s play-action fake — he’s going long, aiming to score transcendence out of nihilistic exploitation tropes. Captivity eventually becomes trust, commiseration, a mutual salving of aches. Look at that poster again and it seems like they’re chained together. The hoochie, Rae, really just wants to stand by her man, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), a puppy-eyed whelp just deployed with the National Guard, but she gets so strung out — a day without sex and she’s feverish. As for Lazarus and his sacred mission, he figures out soon enough that it has almost everything to do with his brooding on a woman that did him wrong and almost nothing to do with Christian kindness. The first step, they say, is admitting you have a problem.

As an essay in redemption, Black Snake Moan could be expected to borrow the Cecil B. DeMille template: six reels of sinning capped with a reel of sobbing. But Brewer and his very capable DP Amelia Vincent have the visual vocabulary to distinguish good sex from bad, and make sin a rather rotten spectacle — witness their palpably sticky black-and-purple strip club in Hustle & Flow. Ricci, returning from an extended furlough, is affecting through the mere fact of her new physique, outlined by how we remember her. She’s shed weight, and it doesn’t look healthy; her skin seems vaguely blighted; those Wednesday Addams eyes stare out of an unfamiliar sallow face; her panties-and-belly-shirt combo seems meant to titillate, but I felt like my eyes needed prophylactics.

A better metaphor for Black Snake Moan might be some stitched-together piece of sideshow taxidermy, like Barnum’s half-monkey half-fish Feejee Mermaid. In this case it’s two incongruous movies mushed together — half of a chitlin-circuit drive-in double-bill meets a sympathetic small-town melodrama. You can enjoy the curiosity of the combination, but Black Snake Moan isn’t quite a prime specimen of either of its components. I know life is long and movies are short, but Rae’s reclamation to monogamy, aided by sit-downs with the minister of Lazarus’s church (John Cothren), is just too much of a take-a-number quick-fix for me — one thinks of mountebank talkshow psychology. As reheated Southern-fried trash goes, I’ll sooner re-watch last year’s Slither, a jocular sickie whose ambitions stopped at telling the tale of a South Carolina town’s invasion by parasitic mind-controlling space slugs.

Brewer loves to excavate the dense musical silt of the South; his two films are populated with real-life musicians (Ludacris and Isaac Hayes in Hustle, rapper David Banner here) and lovingly cued Stax singles, and each has had a musician at its center. Hustle, better than any of it’s “An MC is Born” contemporaries, showed the sweat of D.I.Y. recording, though its self-seriousness only made the punchline of any tortured rapper biopic fall that much harder: that our protagonist suffers the vicissitudes of ten Van Goghs, and the artistic revelation he produces is a club-banger built around the hook “Whup that trick.” In Black Snake, Lazarus reveals a past life as a honky-tonking bluesman who stopped shaking up the blood buckets when he found Jesus. Both films show a reverential, often unexamined infatuation with the hard-luck mythology of outlaw music: rap rivalries, sawdust-and-blood roadhouses, devil got my woman, etc. And though Brewer fights the tendency, common in fans-turned-biographers, of amplifying the sufferings of the artist while reducing everyone else into “material,” his wrung-out women still seem faintly written.

Which puts a lot on Jackson, swinging his middle-aged girth in a tank top, the only note of heaviness he finds. Lazarus is, granted, a nearly untenable part, a man who throws the shadow of a folk tale. The itinerant bluesman is one of our culture’s compass points of “authenticity,” and despite a shy, humbling courtship with a local pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson), it’s clear that Laz is meant to be conversant with a deeper, darker, richer, strain of existence. When he plugs in and plays, in the film’s lightning-strobed Southern Gothic climax, he is both summoner and an exorcist. When a movie uses footage of Son House stage banter for its Greek chorus, it requires a spirit of silent profundity to match its ambitions, someone who can quietly vibrate pain.

Why, then, Sam Jackson? A thousand actors have collected paychecks from working beneath their talents and stayed uneroded, but Jackson has long ago been smothered by his carapace of bluff and superiority. He has a Christopher Lloyd-like fondness for the makeup chair, as if unconsciously hoping to hide the fact that he’s in xXx. Where’s Sam’s soul? — swept up in a dustpan on the set of Who’s the Man? Jackson provides vocals for several songs for the soundtrack, some before a riotous, world-class session band; his voice is as resonant as anything heard emanating from a beer tent at Jammin’ on Main.

Brewer, a middle-class white guy with a jones for the lower depths, has caught a little critical flak — some deserved, some not — largely because he works with the big, bold dash of exploitation; that Jim Jarmusch’s White Negroes in New Orleans and Memphis never came to such grief is rank elitism. Besides his record collection, Brewer has talents that shouldn’t be underestimated: an unaffected way of showing how blacks and whites on the economic outskirts of society interact, and a happy, unpretentious attitude toward miscegenation in life and music.

An example: When Black Snake Moan hits its boil-over point, Ronnie comes home, is hit with news of his gal’s unfaithfulness, finds Rae with Lazarus, assumes the worst, and calls Laz a nigger. I cringed. Because it’s an ugly word, yeah, but also because I was bracing myself for a Crash. American movies have too-much latched onto that pernicious “nigger” as the magic key to race relations, pedaling shopworn Norman Lear-icism that channels the wracked, tangled whole of our history into its withholding or outburst. It is regarded with a combination of reverence and horror; the power of its incantation is stultifying, hence that ubiquitous code, “n-word.”

Black Snake, for all its potboiler trimmings, is smarter — this outburst isn’t the dirty truth rearing its head; it’s a dumb kid, losing his mind with jealousy, saying the nastiest thing he can think of. The world doesn’t stop spinning. Most American movies, utterly dumb to class, like to isolate racism in that word because it’s something that well-bred whites usually remember not to say. What baffles our film culture — yes, Borat too — is what it means that the same working-class blacks and whites who’ve never bothered to choke back a racial epithet can get a beer together after work, while middle-class folk with a lot more decorum will stay huddled in their caste. Brewer might not have the delicacy to get inside of that conundrum, but he suggests a willingness to try (this, and who knows what else). And a little guttiness is always welcome.




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