Monday, July 9, 2007

Black Snake Moan

Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, John Cothran Jr., Michael Raymond James, S. Epatha Merkerson

Running Time: 116 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

If there's one thing that can be said for sure about writer/director Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, it's that you've never seen anything quite like it. Unfortunately in this case, that isn't exactly a compliment. This is the kind of movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be a sleazy grindhouse exploitation picture yet at the same time strives to be a touching tale of redemption. The end result is that the film isn't entirely successful at either and is a near miss. Still, I'd be lying if I said it didn't contain two exceptional performances and at times I was fascinated by what I was watching. Except I was fascinated in the way you'd be fascinated if you saw a car wreck on the side of the highway and you couldn't help but stop and watch. It's unpleasant and uncomfortable to look at but you just can't help yourself.

The car wreck in question is Christina Ricci and she gives probably the bravest performance of her entire career playing a character I had little sympathy for, though that's through no fault of her own. I did, however, have sympathy for Ricci as an actress having to perform the embarrassing acts asked of her by Brewer in a movie that doesn't quite earn them. I found the first half of this film to be insufferable and almost a chore to sit through as I was telling myself that Brewer better deliver in a big way soon to justify what he's putting Ricci through. The second half of the film is far better and he comes close, but not close enough. That he comes close is due not only to the work of Ricci, but the brilliant performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who sells this emotionally complicated material like it's gold, proving once again he's one of our most versatile actors. He's stated that he thinks this is his best performance and I can't argue with him. I only wish it were in a slightly better movie.

A gray-bearded Jackson plays Lazarus, a God-fearing, down on his luck blues musician whose wife (Adriane Lenox) just left him for his younger brother. His life is turned upside down with the discovery of a half-naked girl, bruised, battered and dumped on the side of the road near his house. She's Rae (Ricci), a nymphomaniac with some serious trust and intimacy issues stemming from an abusive childhood. Up until this point the only person saving her from her self- destructive behavior has been her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake in an underwritten role), but with him shipped off to join the army, she's left alone to her own devices. That's bad. Very bad. Before long she slips back into her hold ways and is doing drugs and jumping anything that moves, including her drug dealer (played in a cameo by rapper David Banner). After a drunken late night argument with Ronnie's best friend (Michael Raymond-James), she's beaten and thrown out of a pickup truck. Lazarus takes Rae in and makes it his mission to nurse her back to health and cure her of her fever and sex "sickness." This sickness consists mostly of her screaming and writhing practically naked on the floor as an insatiable itch engulfs her nether regions. If you're a Ricci fan you're probably thinking that this sounds like your kind of movie. I can assure you though that watching these scenes is not all it's cracked up to be so prepare yourself.

Then there's the infamous chain. This is worth talking about because it provides a major clue as to why this film doesn't work like it should. Why does Lazarus chain Rae to a radiator? Well, so she doesn't escape obviously but there's more to it than that. There are dozens of other ways he could have accomplished that. Let's be honest. Brewer has Lazarus chain Rae to the radiator because he knew it would be a SHOCKING IMAGE. He thought the idea of a black man chaining up a white, trashy southern girl would shock us and make us feel uncomfortable. He's just pushing our buttons. It's no coincidence that the image was featured prominently in commercials, trailers, promotional posters and DVD cover art for the film. That's the real reason she's chained to the radiator. Also, he probably thought it would look cool. Maybe it does a little. I'll admit it. I'll also admit the image of Christina Ricci walking down a dirt road in short shorts, cowboy boots and a cut-off confederate flag t-shirt while flipping off a tractor is cool too. However, when you're trying to tell a story that contains at least some degree of emotional impact is it really an appropriate time to look cool? When Brewer shift gears later and wants us to empathize with Ricci's character it becomes a problem because he's already sucked us dry with bombastic, over-the-top histrionics.

I was almost willing to forgive all of this because of the conviction Ricci and Jackson bring to their roles. Naturally, Lazarus sees redeeming Rae as a means of redeeming himself and the relationship that develops between the two (at least in the film's second half) is at times actually very poignant, giving me hope that perhaps Brewer could pull this off after all. A moment in a blues night club with Lazarus playing and singing his heart out as Rae's body gyrates on the dance floor does more to capture what this film is really about than any other. There's also a beautiful scene where he serenades her during a thunderstorm that hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively. It's powerful stuff. I suppose I should praise the film for not taking the easy road and keeping the relationship between the two platonic, but honestly, you'd have to be stupidest screenwriter alive to attempt to force a romantic relationship into this.

As a filmmaker Brewer is clearly talented and I like how he uses the blues as a redemptive force in the film while capturing the essence of the South. The movie at times could almost be considered a love letter to blues music and the South. I especially liked the way the movie was cleverly bookend by archival footage of legendary blues musician Son House. You can literally feel Brewer's passion for the material shining through. Everything finally appears to be on track until he decides to give us an ending so bizarre and insane in its execution I thought someone snuck in a reel from another film. Inexplicably, after being absent the entire film (literally!) Timberlake's character returns in a blaze of glory and all of the sudden we're expected, with no questions asked, to feel for his plight and root for the tortured relationship between Rae and Ronnie.

Timberlake, like Ricci, is asked to carry a serious load with his performance, but unlike Ricci, he has just precious few minutes of screen time to do it. To his credit, Timberlake does a great job but this task is Herculean and it was unfair of Brewer to saddle him with it. In what really amounts to just a couple of scenes he's asked to do far more here than he was in all of Alpha Dog. A tighter script that developed his character early on would have eliminated the need to have Timberlake perform acting miracles minutes before the picture ends.

The treatment of Timberlake's character is indicative of another problem that permeates through the film, which is Brewer's inability to flesh out any of the supporting players in such a way that they meaningfully contribute to the story. The attempt to develop a love interest for Lazarus in a drug store employee played by S. Epatha Merkerson is pointless and underdeveloped while John Cothran Jr.'s preacher never seems like an actual person, rather just a plot device for the ridiculous finale. You can't shake the feeling these characters are just unwanted guests who drop in every once in a while during the movie. Really Brewer's entire third act is ill conceived and feels more like an episode of Dr. Phil than an appropriate ending to a major motion picture. Regardless of the ending, I was still left with the feeling Rae and Ronnie's relationship is hopeless.

This is Craig Brewer's much anticipated follow-up to 2005's Hustle and Flow (which garnered a Best Actor nomination for Terrence Howard and bagged an Oscar for original song) and the film is too interesting to technically be considered a disappointment, but it doesn't all come together like it should. The good news here is that where the movie fails is not in intentions, but execution. Brewer has great ideas, but perhaps he found himself torn between telling a moving story of redemption and making a marketable movie that would appeal to mass audiences. That said, I'd much rather watch a risk-taking movie that swings for the fences and just misses than a better one that's boring and plays it safe.

No one can accuse Brewer of playing it safe here and I really look forward to his next film. It's clear he has a lot of talent as a filmmaker and he manages to extract career high performances from Jackson and Ricci. As difficult as Ricci's performance is to watch it's rare you'd find an actress willing to expose herself as much physically and emotionally as she does here. If this leads to bigger roles for her I can't complain, no matter how many buttons Brewer may be trying to push. She deserves it. For Samuel L. Jackson, Black Snake Moan is thankfully a long way from fighting snakes on planes, which comes as a relief since this is obviously a far more challenging and complex role. Whatever problems exist in the film no one can claim the actors don't milk the most out of the material. If only Brewer had decided what that material was, the results could have been incredible

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