It has become increasingly evident that one should never judge a movie directed by Craig Brewer by its trailer. The trailer to Brewer’s debut film Hustle & Flow made it look like a clichéd rags to riches gangster hip-hop movie, a genre that is quickly becoming the blaxploitation genre of the 21st century. Instead audiences got was a touching and thoughtful, intelligent and yet crowd-pleasing take on the American dream achieved through music. The trailer for Brewer’s new film Black Snake Moan makes the film look like some kind of soft core porn that Samuel L. Jackson wandered into as some sort of post-Snakes on a Plane camp binge. This trailer isn’t any more accurate then the Hustle and Flow trailer, Black Snake Moan is in fact one of the most unique experiences you’re likely to find in a multi-plex.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, an aging Tennessee pea farmer and former blues man going through a bitter divorce. One morning he finds an attractive, half naked, white woman named Rae (Christina Ricci) lying unconscious on the road outside his house. After nursing Rae back to health Lazarus discovers that she is a nymphomaniac who has been sleeping around, a lot, ever since her fiancé (Justin Timberlake) shipped out to
Iraq. Lazurus decides to take it upon himself to “cure [her] of [her] wickedness” by chaining her to a radiator and making her essentially go cold turkey.
It should first be said that the use of nymphomania is not a sleazy attempt to put Christina Ricci’s character into sexual situations. Rae’s disorder is treated as a serious mental disorder, much the way drug or alcohol addiction is treated in many other films. Black Snake Moan is the best exploration of sex addiction since the 2002 Bob Crane bio-pic Auto Focus. The film is also not naïve enough to think that a few weeks chained to a radiator will solve all of this troubled girl’s problems.
With Black Snake Moan Brewer has a much harder task then he did with Hustle and Flow. Hustle and Flow had the benefit of working within a genre that has produced a large number of lackluster films for it to look great in comparison to. It is hard to classify Black Snake Moan, it’s too quirky to be considered a drama. It is also doesn’t try to make the audience laugh out loud as a comedy would. It fits perhaps into the tradition of The French New Wave by way of Pulp Fiction, but not to the extent that those films often broke the fourth wall. It is also a musical of sorts, though music here is more of a backdrop then it was in Hustle and Flow where music was the main thrust of the story.
The blues music is at the heart of Black Snake Moan, it courses through the movie much like bluegrass ran through the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Though. The music is also very nice to hear, Samuel L. Jackson reportedly spent six hours a day for half a year practicing his songs for the movie, and it shows. Jackson doesn’t have much of a singing voice, but he emotes in classic blues fashion, on screen he looks more like a veteran musician then a
Hollywood poser. Of particular worth to fans of Jackson’s Jules Winfield persona will be his sizzling take on the blues standard “Stagger Lee” the scene where this song is performed is like all of
Jackson’s riotous fury from Pulp Fiction put into song. The music is not revolutionary and when heard on a CD it may not be as exiting, but the way it’s played on screen it is electrifying. Sound editing and mixing may be awards laughed at when the average person watches the Oscars, but here both really enhance the story greatly.
There’s more to Jackson in Black Snake Moan then mere singing, this is the first time in a since Changing Lanes that I’ve seen Jackson do more then play a variation on Jules Winfield. Here
Jackson plays a three dimensional character with a real arc and multiple sides to his personality. Lazarus certainly has “the blues” since “his baby” left him, but he also has a certain inner turmoil and a bit of wrath that emerges at times.
Jackson also manages to really act in his musical performances, much the way Jennifer Hudson did in her Oscar wining role in Dreamgirls. Ricci is also giving a bold and interesting performance in a difficult role, she has to be a sexy seductress and yet also a troubled, vulnerable and sympathetic young woman. Justin Timberlake is clearly the weakest of the three, in all fairness, his performance isn’t really bad per se, in fact it’s pretty good, but not good enough for the average viewer to overcome the baggage of having the leader of the most annoying boy band since New Kids on the Block featured on screen in a movie about quality music. Timberlake has a long way to go before he can shake off the stigma of his music career the way Mark(y Mark) Wahlberg has.
The movie is not perfect, an unnecessary romantic sub-plot between Lazarus and a choir member named Angela played by S. Epatha Merkerson (of TV’s Law & Order) adds a lair of formula to an otherwise highly original film. Also unnecessary is the addition of an over stereotypical redneck villain character who disappears in the third act and detracts from the film’s otherwise non judgmental take on its characters.
For the most part Black Snake Moan is a blast, it features a highly original premise, great performances, good writing and great music. Craig Brewer has proven that he is more then a mere one hit wonder, he is a promising young director who can make entertaining yet thoughtful films.
***1/2 out of four