The Reeler


March 2, 2007

Black Snake Moan

Deep blues haunt Jackson and Ricci in stellar, sweltering Southern drama

First things first: yes, it's the second prominent Samuel L. Jackson movie in a row with "Snake" in the title, and certain camp expectations are inevitably at work. At this point, Jackson -- who, please note, delivers yet another stunningly nuanced performance rather than mere caricature -- occupies some kind of weird cultural status as the last blaxploitation player left, where the very idea of Jackson occupies more cultural space than his actual roles. Jackson has the capacity to say outrageous, unseemly, unnecessarily belligerent things in a fantastic voice that rarely fails to impress; even when a nation of slobbering fanboys eagerly anticipated Jackson’s delivery of "I'm sick and tired of the motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane," it wasn’t really a question of exploiting new-school minstrel stereotypes. The man's charisma is just too compelling to ignore -- even if he isn’t the second coming of (and improvement on) Jim Brown.

That said, in Black Snake Moan Jackson is an awful bluesman, which is kind of a problem for a movie that begins with Son House lecturing TV audiences about what constitutes the blues. Jackson's character is named Lazarus, and writer/director Craig Brewer isn't dicking around with the nomenclature; he begins the film as a hard-drinking man of erratic religiosity left by his wife for his brother (!) and ends it romantically and spiritually renewed. The catalyst for his revival is Rae (Christina Ricci, now blond and hence nearly unrecognizable), whom he finds lying beaten, unconscious and half-naked on the road outside his house. Rae ( = ray of light, get it?) is the victim of the kind of compulsion that only affects movie characters: In moments of great anxiety, she needs to have sex or goes crazy, leading to her being taken advantage of by everyone in sight. ("Cough drops or condoms?" her mom spits when Rae approaches the small town's grocery store.) Lazarus heals her wounds, then decides to heal her spiritually, announcing, "God seen fit to put you in my path, and I ain't cured you of your wickedness." So he chains her to his radiator and doesn't let her leave the house.

The premise (and posters) scream lurid sexual psychodrama, but Black Snake Moan is basically a redemption parable anchored in the kind of emotional extremes that the blues were made for. "Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another or do anything," Son House -- the film's presiding blues luminary from beyond the grave -- announces, but Jackson's deep voice proves thin and generic when he applies himself to the guitar.

The strength of Black Snake Moan is neither Jackson's musical abilities nor its ludicrous premise (the very opposite of Brewer's nuts-and-bolts examination of hip-hop in Hustle And Flow), but its sense of place. Filmed outside of Memphis, the film is steeped in authentically grotty surroundings: run-down bars full of decrepit and unenthused regulars; grocery stores with handwritten cardboard signs advertising cheap beer; miles of small farms with no one close enough to hear what's going on at the neighbor's place. The great, unexamined assumption of most Hollywood films is that everyone lives in moderate-to-big cities that can be generically recreated in Toronto or Prague, yet Brewer's rich atmosphere gives the lie to that premise.

Black Snake Moan may begin with a blast of electric guitar, but you needn't particularly like the blues to enjoy the film (given what Jackson does to the genre, it's probably better if you don't). As in the otherwise completely dissimilar Ghost World, the blues takes a dissatisfied, fucked-up girl out of her environment and plunges her into contemplation: music as redemption. It's that sense of peace through tradition that takes a potentially violent, over-the-top saga and, ultimately, turns it into Capra for alcoholics and bar-hounds. If the first hour plays like the campfest Jackson fans crave, the second hour drops the chain gimmick altogether; a genuine love and respect for the characters develops by film's end.

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Comments (1)

I hate the way you use filthy language in your writing. Come on dude! You're better than that.

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