Black Snake Moan


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June 28, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

There’s no better illustration of my policy against walking out on movies than Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan. The first fifteen minutes are pretty rough, and it wasn’t until I got past them that I realized the director knew exactly what he was doing.

The film opens with Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) furiously making love before Ronnie’s National Guard stint overseas. He soon leaves with his best friend, Gill (Michael Raymond-James) and Rae chases after Gill’s pickup truck, crying. As the boys roll out of sight, she collapses to the ground and shakes. But we see that these aren’t the overwrought spasms of heartache, as Rae’s hands make their way down her legs and between them. Cut to her being ram-rodded by a big, black drug dealer named Tehronne (David Banner) in a cheap hotel room.

Sounds compelling, right? It is, but what made me nervous for the film so early on was the uneven acting from Timberlake and Ricci. I was surprised by Timberlake’s amateur-hour performance because of how well he did in Alpha Dog, which also came out in 2006. Perhaps it’s because he’s so used to conveying confidence that I didn’t buy him as a nervous, deep-South kid with war jitters. Even the way he vomited in the toilet before walking out the door rang false; he made jazz hands while gripping the bowl.

Ricci suffered from the same broad acting problems, which were compounded by a Southern accent that went in and out more frequently than that Tehronne guy. Her delivery was more peach soda than Georgia peach, and I almost couldn’t stand to listen to her. A bigger problem was the over-the-top horny spells that manifested during several scenes—one involving a late-night game of football where everyone scored but no one kept track of points. I suspected Brewer was trying to draw me in to a kinky alternate universe of chicken-fried melodrama that I wasn’t keen on visiting.

Fortunately, his “B” story centers on Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), an old farmer and local blues guitarist whose wife just left him for his brother. Lazarus is a cranky, spiritual man who doesn’t understand why his ex can’t appreciate the leisurely lifestyle they’d shared. Alone at his house, he destroys her rose garden with a tractor and sinks into depression. Unlike a lot of his roles in quirky films, Jackson plays it pretty straight here; sure, Lazarus has a temper and even breaks a beer bottle in two during a bar fight, but these outbursts come from a place of genuine hurt. For the most part, he leaves his Cool, Obnoxious Angry Man shtick behind and makes Lazarus enough of a real person to balance out my few issues with Rae’s believability.

When we catch back up with Rae after the raunchy late-night ball game, she’s so whacked-out on pills and booze that Gill drives her home. He tries to have his way with her on the side of the road; she laughs at his small dick and takes several nasty punches to the face. Gill shoves her out of his truck into the dirt and speeds away.

Lazarus discovers her near-lifeless body the next morning and carries her home to his couch.

Over the course of two long, hot days, Rae comes in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about a featureless man trying to rape her and having flashbacks to all the men she’s been with. The spells kick in, and Lazarus chases her around the house and through his field, barely able to calm her down. When she, in her fevered frenzy, puts the moves on him, he chains her to his radiator.

Up to this point, Black Snake Moan is interesting, flawed and original; after Rae wakes up, sober and fever-free with a giant chain hanging from her hips, the movie becomes vibrant and poignant, and just about note-perfect. Lazarus decides that he’s going to cure Rae of a sickness that’s neither physical nor psychological, but spiritual—she’s got the Devil in her, and he aims to cut the dark lord out. He does this by talking to her, trying to relate to her, and by not giving in to her demands or advances.

Most importantly, he uses music to educate and soothe Rae, and it’s here that Brewer, I think, makes his thesis clear: there’s a healing power to art, to music in particular, that can mend hearts and souls if people are willing to give themselves over to it. That sounds corny, but in the sweaty, violent context of his film, Brewer manages to keep matters from getting too preachy.

The key to his success is the tender chemistry between Ricci and Jackson. Ricci sells Rae’s naive, damaged personality, even if she doesn’t sell the voice that conveys it, and Jackson does some of the finest acting of his spotty career. I bought into their grandfather/granddaughter bond, and was relieved to see that Brewer didn’t throw any hack-romance curve-balls into his screenplay.

The one hack curve-ball he does include is handled in a way I didn’t expect. It doesn’t take a film scholar to guess that Ronnie returns home prematurely and goes off the deep end when he finds out his girl has been shacking up with some strange, old black dude. His insecurity and rage lead him on a warpath of bar fights, stalking, and pulling a gun on Gill after beating him up. Brewer uses Ronnie to draw thematic parallels between Black Snake Moan and his 2005 hit, Hustle & Flow.

That film followed the rise and fall of a pimp-turned-rap-musician-turned-jailed-thug; I liked two-thirds of it, the redemption portion. But the last act saw the hero make a couple of really stupid mistakes and throw his success away; this wasn’t criminal in itself, but Brewer wrapped his story up in a terrible happy-ending bow that bled all the authenticity out of his picture. In Black Snake Moan, we know that Rae’s shot at a better life will be shattered by Ronnie’s intervention, and that there’s a good chance one or both of them will die—along with, likely, Lazarus, under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished maxim.

I was upset by Brewer’s push to the climax, especially since he provides a wonderfully heartbreaking obstacle in the form of Rae’s mother, a bitter drugstore clerk. With Lazarus’ help, Rae confronts her about ignoring her daughter’s childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her second husband. It’s a moment of defiance that’s quickly undone by the greater defiance of denial—and we watch in horror as Rae regresses to a feral state of exposed nerves. This is a great, great scene, and Kim Richards does such a fantastic job playing Rae’s loser mom that I wondered why the hell she chose being a Real Housewife of Los Angeles over pursuing more legitimate acting jobs.

But that’s not enough for Brewer, who has to bring back the psycho boyfriend. Despite knowing (or thinking I knew) where things were headed, I was on the edge of my seat. As with the best scenes in this film, the climax is set to music: Rae sings “This Little Light of Mine” while Lazarus accompanies her on guitar and Ronnie sneaks up on them with a gun. I don’t want to spoil what happens next, but I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I should have had more confidence that Brewer would take a less conventional route; Black Snake Moan is thematically consistent with itself—not with lesser films. Brewer gets the redemption story right this time, instead of going for flash or a tidy ending.

(I’m convinced that the first few moments of the last scene could have been handled differently, as Brewer unleashes a Final Destination vibe out of left field. He finishes it wonderfully, and manages to bring his entire picture full circle; but once again, Justin Timberlake’s scaredy-cat performance undercuts what was already a wobbly premise for a closer.)

I love this movie. There’s so much left to discuss (Jackson’s great blues interludes; Brewer’s use of music and weather to convey the battle for characters’ souls; the powerhouse supporting cast—most notably John Cothran, Jr. as Lazarus’ preacher friend, R.L.). But my point here isn’t to dissect Black Snake Moan all to hell; I just want you to see it. This is a fine, moving piece of art that may just beset you with spells.

[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 03/21/11.]

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