Friday, May 23, 2008

Samuel L. Jackson and the Damaged White Folk in Black Snake Moan


How do you make a movie about a dirty blond nymphomaniac chained inside an African American man’s shack in the deep south? Very carefully. Writer and director Craig Brewer fashioned the award winning Hustle and Flow in 2005, which concerns a Memphis pimp who manages to redeem himself by making a hip hop recording. In that film, Terence Howard conveys such earnest desire to succeed as an artist, one almost forgets his character’s culpability as an exploiter of women. From the movie’s point of view, pimping is just another hustle, a means to survive in the Memphis slums. Similarly, Black Snake Moan takes the politically charged image of a woman chained and presents it as just an awkward form of tough love.

Apparently, Craig Brewer thought up Black Snake Moan while filming Hustle and Flow, and while the new film is definitely edgy and original, the story suffers from the Brewer’s heightened concern with the audience’s ethical reaction, and no doubt Paramount studio was concerned as well. While much of the first half of the film creates the conditions with which Samuel L. Jackson (Lazarus) might realistically chain Christina Ricci (Rae) to a radiator in his house, much of the conclusion turns into a long therapy session where Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) confront their various psychological problems, thereby neutralizing whatever subversive tendency the film has.

For awhile, at least, Black Snake Moan shows plenty of attitude. Strutting around the dirt roads of backwater Tennessee in her daisy dukes, cowboy boots, and ripped t-shirt, Ricci gives the finger to a large combine that gets stuck behind her. Since her boyfriend Ronnie has just shipped off to Iraq, Rae drowns her sorrows with beer and a potpourri of designer drugs that eventually leaves her passed out and bloodied on the side of the road.

Meanwhile, farmer Lazarus has problems of his own: his wife has run off with his younger brother, leaving him angry enough to run a tractor over his wife’s rose patch next to the shack when he’s not threatening his brother with the edge of a broken bottle in the neighborhood honky-tonk. As he throws out her stuff one morning, he stumbles across the town tramp (Rae) nearby, so he carries her inside and starts to nurse her back to health. When investigating her status in town, he learns of her nymphomania, (“She’s got that itch, you know,” as one of her lovers says), so he gradually decides to chain her inside as a crude form of intervention. When she finally wakes up and realizes that she has a large chain tied around her waist, first she tries to escape, and then she tries to seduce him, but Lazarus says with Biblical fervor “I mean to cure you of your wickedness. I ain’t gonna be moved. You ain’t going to bend my will. I’m gonna suffer you.” Samuel L. Jackson is well-suited for the role, especially if one remembers his Ezekial 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction where he turns a gangster murder into an old testament judgment. There his speech rises to a climactic “And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee” before he and John Travolta shoot the drug dealers in the room.

In Black Snake Moan, Jackson never gets such a show-piece line of dialogue, but his acting abilities easily match Ricci’s for good old southern histrionics, and one can sense that he enjoys the outrageous premise of the movie. You can tell that the filmmakers are concerned about blues authenticity because they begin the movie with some archival footage of 1930s blues legend Son House saying “There’s only one kind of blues—the one that consists between male and female.”

For a time, the two leads have nicely tense scenes, but, unfortunately, Justin Timberlake appears back in town, and the film devolves quickly into histrionics. Craig Brewer wants to make a point about how we all suffer from anxieties, but when the film turns to curing Rae and Ronnie of their problems, I suddenly wanted to leave the theater. Some plot shifts are worse than getting tied down with a forty pound chain.

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