Craig Brewer's third feature Black Snake Moan is about the redemption of sleaze, though it plays closer to a shotgun marriage of Baby Doll and Boxing Helena. Even more than Hustle & Flow, Brewer's new work is designed as a deliberate provocation that mixes like a Molotov cocktail race, sex and class.
A fevered dream about an embittered black sharecropper who rescues from degradation a sexually-voracious white woman, the movie has a lurid appeal and perverse fascination. Unfortunately, pretty much every detail is amplified to the point the work has no ability to breathe.
The strong production values, capable acting and memorable blues-infused soundtrack remain insufficient to the movie's glaring weaknesses, the structural problems of the screenplay or the incoherent conception of the primary characters.
The movie premiered at Sundance, where Brewer's Hustle & Flow debuted to great fanfare two years ago and was purchased and distributed by Paramount Classics. That movie's commercial performance was widely regarded as disappointing following a massive build up of expectations.
Set for release February 23 by Paramount Vantage, Black Snake Moan is poised for a strong opening, immeasurably aided by the strong cast of Samuel L Jackson, Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake.
Like Brewer's predecessor, the new film is more likely to generate news coverage than mainstream appeal. In the same vein it is likely to do exceptionally well in DVD and cable. International expectations are much more muted, with DVD the likely best revenue source.
Brewer is clearly drawn to stories of salvation. He links visually and thematically the private torment of his two lead characters. Rae (Ricci) is beautiful though damaged, a sexual exhibitionist who demonstrates little regard for her safety or emotional welfare.
She wantonly surrenders herself to her Iraq-bound soldier boyfriend (Timberlake) or a nefarious local drug dealer (Banner) to satisfy her constant 'itch.'
Lazarus (Jackson) is a farmer and blues musician of considerable local reputation given to nasty drinking bouts and violent temper swings in the wake of his wife's leaving him and revealing she is involved sexually with his brother. The two plot strands dovetail one early morning when Lazarus is horrified to find Rae lying unconscious on his property, her face pock marked with bruises and cuts.
His awareness of her promiscuity prompts his outrageous response, a form of bondage in which he chains the lithe, vulnerable young woman to his living room radiator and announces he means to eliminate the wickedness that courses through her body.
That recurring image, the hard chain wrapped around Rae's tiny waist, is a powerfully disturbing emblem of a Southern past of slavery and the unfettered black male sexuality. It's an image he never quite rectifies.
Brewer shows significant advances in his work with the camera, particularly an elaborately designed crane movement that leads to Rae's seduction of a young black country boy. Cinematographer Amy Vincent uses the colour, atmosphere and Southern landscape to excellent effect.
The music is fantastic. Brewer's a self-taught artist, and he brings a flair and energy to his work. Unfortunately he also displays the worst instinct of the self-taught, a naivety and aesthetically reactionary sensibility. The movie's charged conceit has no follow through or dramatic counterpoint.
At the very moment the film should confront its entrancing premise, Brewer refuses to confront his own convictions. He privileges the supporting players, such as a sympathetic reverend (Cothran Jr.), a pharmacy worker (Merkerson), or Lazarus's past as a talented bluesman, rather than fully investigate emotionally, psychologically, the woman whose story is the one worth documenting.
Jackson is more subdued than he was in the recent Home Of The Brave. Ricci's fearless performance is revealing in its sexual ferocity. In the kind of films Brewer wants to honor, the Roger Corman drive in movies made by gifted young directors such as Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) or Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat), the sexual freedom the woman demand is an essential part of their feminist and class revolt. Here Ricci's Rae is unduly punished. She and the audience that has invested in her deserves better than that.
New Deal Productions
Southern Cross the Dog Productions
Keith Brian Burns
Samuel L. Jackson
John Cothran Jr.