Saturday, March 03, 2007

Black Snake Groans

In his coming-out movie, Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer provided one of the year's best scenes. The bare-bones creation of music -- starting with the lyrics, gradually getting a beat, then a melody, until finally a song was born. I think I watched that scene three times in a row, and each time I was amazed at how Brewer was able to give the sequence a natural progression, showing that when creative minds are put to good use, new art can be born in a matter of minutes. I look at Black Snake Moan as a similar exercise, but this time it's a tribute to blues music -- a genre Brewer shows needs much more than simply lyrics and a melody, but for the artist to use their emotional extremes as an instrument of its own.

When it all comes together, in a crumbling but still lively blues hall somewhere in Tennessee, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) lights up the place with a hard, menacing number that contains all the strange amounts of anger, strength and salvation he had felt in the past week. It's a scene that almost makes you want to get up and dance in the theater aisle, or at least yell the profane lyrics along with Lazarus. Black Snake Moan shows hints of the sex/race exploitation movie that commercials and promos make it out to be, but it's ultimately about redemption through a microphone -- not a chain locked to a radiator and a delicate waist.

Those last three elements are what get the most face-time in the previews, but they take a backseat to Lazarus and his guitar. Lazarus is a stubborn Tennessee farmer, whose favorite line is 'ain't no way you're gonna move me!' The key word in that quote is 'you,' because Lazarus is intent on solving problems on his own, or through the Bible. Yet there aren't many words in the Bible to explain what to do with a beat-up, sex-starved, half-naked floozie who is dropped near Lazarus' house as if from above. What Lazarus does know is that according to the Bible, there's no reason why Rae (Christina Ricci) should hunger for sex like a hummingbird for nectar. His controversial solution is to put Rae on a rehab program with no Britney Spears-walk-out clause: chain, radiator.

It's in this device that Black Snake Moan will win or lose with the audience. To me, it seems to function more for visual means than anything within the story, while others might see it as Lazarus' way of making Rae experience a normal sex drive. The chain scenes weighted the movie down too much for me, and I had to strain to find anything engaging Rae's plight after the first few minutes. Ricci, looking nothing like the curvy sprite of her early career, does a fine job as Rae -- but it's hard to find too much to like about her. Lazarus sees her as a soul capable of salvation, but do we? Rae kissed her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) goodbye to Iraq in the film's early moments, but it's never apparent what their love is, besides satisfying Rae's appetite (Ronnie is seldom onscreen, and given little to do besides furrow his brow).

It's Lazarus that's easy to root for, as he was once a blues showman in this desolate place, and shows an occasional flare of being the town's troubled hero. Unfortunately, possibly for Brewer's need to 'pulp-up' his movie, Lazarus is given baffling moments such as telling us about losing his virginity to an overweight second cousin, and moments of cruelty that seem out of place with his character. Black Snake Moan's finest moments are when we see Lazarus as a bluesman, such as playing Rae a tune while lightning crashes outside and the power goes in and out, or the aforementioned club scene.

When Lazarus belts out that last song and is on top of his game again, it's easy to chant along with him, but it's hard to feel the sense of his journey because Rae is still largely the same person. Even more troubling is the fact that Lazarus brutally imprisoned Rae, but after the first few hours she appears resigned to the situation and becomes the Harold to Lazarus' Maude rather rotely and unremarkably. Brewer tries to juice up Rae by dropping in a cold subplot about her mother and possibly explain her sickly condition, but it ends up feeling forced mainly due to the lack of script space devoted to it (Rae's confrontation with her mother ends cheaply with nothing resolved). Lazarus' performance is the highlight of the movie, but we arrive there by slogging through an album of songs whose choruses never seem to end. In a movie powered by music, Black Snake Moan only has a single to show for its efforts.

Note: This review is also published at

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