By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007
When "Hustle & Flow" burst on to movie screens two years ago, it made a racket: Not only did the movie present a breakout performance by Terrence Howard as a pimp turned rapper, but it seemed to announce a whole new kind of film, a genre-busting mash-up of urban exploitation flick, rap musical, hymn to the American Dream, and down-and-dirty comedy.
Now, from the same filmmaker, comes "Black Snake Moan," an equally audacious, if not as thoroughly realized, glimpse into a world rarely portrayed on screen.
"Black Snake Moan" makes its intentions known right at the outset, in an opening scene wherein Rae (Christina Ricci) and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) engage in passionate sex in their trailer in rural Mississippi. (The film is bracketed by blues great Son House delivering a soliloquy on love and the blues.) Ronnie is on his way to boot camp, and it soon becomes clear that neither of them can handle the separation. Plagued by anxiety, he throws up in the bathroom, and as soon as he leaves, a similarly overcome Rae goes on a drinking-drugging-indiscriminate-sex binge that leaves her in a bruised heap on the side of a dusty road.
Presumably left for dead, Rae is discovered by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a truck farmer with his own problems. Fueled by Old Testament rage and spiritual fire, Laz carries Rae back to his modest house, where he nurses her back to health. When he asks around town and finds out about her round-heeled past, he takes it upon himself to "cure" her of her "wickedness," chaining her to his radiator until the sex demon is driven plum out of her.
In interviews, "Black Snake Moan's" writer-director, Craig Brewer, has suggested that his new film is about healing, redemption and forgiveness. But if you've seen the posters, you know it's also about the nubile Ricci -- who spends most of the movie clothed only in a cut-off Confederate flag T-shirt and bikini panties -- wrapping herself provocatively in a 40-pound chain. Such is the cognitive dissonance of watching a movie that's trying to balance moral seriousness, Southern Gothic excess and pure pulp pleasure.
It's a difficult needle to thread, and Brewer gets it right as often as he goes too far. As he did in "Hustle & Flow," Brewer again evinces an acute eye and ear for the American South he so clearly loves, from the sugar shacks and juke joints to the contemplative expanse of a green bean field. And like that film, "Black Snake Moan" is full of terrific music and indelible, poetic images, such as when Laz takes a backhoe to his former wife's garden (called "Rose's Roses"). Jackson, as always, is the epitome of charisma and strength as a broken man trying to stay true to his Christian principles the only way he knows how; but the movie belongs to Ricci, who despite her doll-like physique dominates the screen with a fearless, vanity-free performance.
But as well intentioned as Brewer seems to be, there's a sense that he's having his cake and eating it, too, as he both comments on lurid S&M imagery and engages in it. At one point, Rae seduces one of Laz's neighbors, an innocent kid who just happens to knock on the door at the wrong time; she comes at him like a lusty she-devil, and later Laz and the boy share a wink and a laugh over the whole thing. Whether intended as campy humor or something deeper, it's a misfire.
The motives are just as murky when Rae, newly freed from her primitive compulsions after a late-night session listening to Laz sing the blues, dances lasciviously while he plays slide guitar at a local juke. Are we supposed to cheer that she can bump and grind against everyone in the club without sleeping with them -- or simply ogle? Having chosen such larger-than-life characters in a story so highly pitched, so metaphorically freighted and so steeped in Southern history and myth, Brewer too often forces the message with big, theatrical gestures, making it difficult for viewers to see Laz and Rae and their neighbors simply as human.
But human they are, and that point is driven home in the film's final scenes, which bring the volume level down and unfold with surprising tenderness and emotion. If "Black Snake Moan" is uneven, that's because Brewer has set himself to a higher degree of difficulty than most emerging filmmakers, telling stories rarely seen on screen, with equally rare characters and settings. Craig Brewer is definitely up to something, and it's gratifying to watch him explore new cinematic territory with such conviction and assurance.
Black Snake Moan (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong sexual content, profanity, some violence and drug use.