Phil on Film Index

Monday, May 21, 2007

Review - Black Snake Moan

Even if you haven't seen Black Snake Moan, and even if you have no intention of seeing it, you've probably seen the film's poster somewhere. It's an image which pulsates with provocation. Here we have a tall black man in a dirty white vest with a fearsome scowl painted across his face. He is holding a heavy chain in his hands, and at the end of the chain there's a young woman, wearing a skimpy cut-off t-shirt and tight shorts, pouting towards the camera with a sex-kittenish fervour. The whole package promises an explosive picture, a film full of sleaze and danger, with film's tagline assuring us that "Everything is Hotter Down South".

With that in mind, it comes as something of a surprise to find a rather tame and old-fashioned tale of morality and redemption lying underneath Black Snake Moan's lurid surface. Sure, the film delivers plenty of sex and creates a convincingly steamy atmosphere; but it doesn't really go anywhere new or daring, it doesn't really explore the issues it fleetingly touches on, and it never comes close to delivering on the salacious promise of its central conceit.

Black Snake Moan is essentially the age-old tale of two broken characters who find an unorthodox connection. We are first introduced to Rae (Christina Ricci) while she's engaged in a bout of frantic sex with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). These are their last moments together before he has to leave for a tour of duty in Iraq, and as soon as Ronnie has gone Rae is down on the floor, writhing and moaning in a fit of sexual hunger. It's an itch which Rae can't help scratching, and the next few night see her getting wasted and spreading her legs for any man who wants to sate her appetite. This behaviour inevitably leads Rae into trouble, and she finds herself in the wrong man's truck one night, taking a brutal beating before being left unconscious at the side of a remote road.

Enter the significantly-named Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson), an upright, God-fearing vegetable gardener whose wife has recently left him for his brother. When he finds the lifeless Rae outside his home, he takes her home and tends to her wounds, keeping a watchful eye over her while she spends two days with a high fever. But when he learns all about his new patient's reputation as the local slut, and sees for himself the ostentatiously sexual way in which she behaves, he resorts to some extreme therapy. Lazarus pulls a long steel chain out of his tool shed and shackled Rae to the radiator with it; she has enough room to move around the house, but no further - and she isn't going anywhere until Lazarus cures her of this 'sickness'.

The best scenes in Black Snake Moan are the ones in which the film's most potent elements are simply allowed to take centre stage. The two central performances from Jackson and Ricci are committed and full of passion - with Jackson in particular doing his best work in years - and the blues-driven soundtrack gives the picture plenty of life; but Craig Brewer's film fails through a lack of purpose, and a lack of courage in its own convictions.

After a rocky start, Black Snake Moan finds its groove about half an hour in, when Lazarus and Rae first go head-to-head over his bizarre approach to treating her malaise. The unusual nature of the situation instantly hooks the interest, and the contrasting styles of the two protagonists spark brilliantly off each other. Ricci's acting is sometimes a little to twitchy for my liking, but she does imbue her part with a tigerish intensity, and her ability to make some of her character's sillier scenes work should not be overlooked. When Rae finds herself at the mercy of her raging libido, her body starts to buckle and shake - as if possessed by a demon - and in one scene she even comes over all Regan MacNeil in the way she spits insults at her captor. These scenes are borderline ridiculous, but Ricci finds a way to gain the audience's favour and empathy. It's a brave and ferocious piece of acting.

Jackson is more subdued. His Lazarus burns with a sense of righteousness and dignity, but there's an undercurrent of anger and resentment after his wife's act of betrayal, an aggression which is constantly threatening to fight its way to the surface. Jackson has too often relied on his natural screen presence and charisma in recent years, but this performance has an air of authenticity and a core of genuine feeling about it. He keeps his character interesting even if his development, as written by Brewer, makes little sense. Ricci and Jackson are a highly watchable pair, but there's only co much you can do with a girl on a chain, and when Brewer tries to moves his narrative forward the hollowness and sketchiness at the centre of Black Snake Moan becomes glaringly apparent.

Black Snake Moan gets less interesting and less adventurous with every step it takes. Brewer gives his characters predictable arcs - Rae gradually gains some peace and self-respect, Lazarus gradually learns to move on with his life - and he tries to explain their behaviour in a pat fashion, tritely blaming Rae's antics on the sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her. The director also seems wary of fully examining the racial and sexual issues his initial premise throws up. Lazarus' complete lack of desire for the half-naked nymphomaniac curtails some of the threat which is inherent in the film's central scenes, instead allowing their relationship to play out in a standard surrogate father-daughter fashion. But Brewer wants to have it both ways, and Lazarus doesn't get a change of clothes for Rae until deep into the film's second half, despite his distaste for her near-nakedness, as this would prevent the director from lasciviously running his camera up and down her exposed flesh.

The issue of race is curiously absent too. Aside one instance in which Timberlake labels Lazarus a nigger, there doesn't appear to be any sort of black/white tension in this Deep South town. Instead, Black Snake Moan is yet another film which trades in that most egregious of cinematic clichés - the soulful black person changing the life of some needy white person. Rae's head is turned by Jackson playing the blues and the wise words of a local preacher (John Cothran Jr.); and while Brewer clearly has a deep fascination with black culture - as displayed in his massively overhyped Hustle & Flow - he too often settles for clichéd visions of African-American life.

Black Snake Moan is a strange, maddeningly uneven film which starts with a raw passion and a desire to shake the audience out of their seats, but then it just loses its nerve. The film is at its best when it yields to the melodramatic, steamy impulses at its heart; but as Rae's rough edges get smoothed out and she grows into a respectable young woman, the film grows more timid and conventional, offering no sense of satisfaction at its close. Craig Brewer clearly has talent, he knows how to direct actors and he knows how to give us the full flavour of a film's milieu, but while Black Snake Moan contains a handful of terrific moments, it never finds a way to exploit its full potential. As I left the cinema, frustrated and disappointed, I caught one more glimpse of the film's poster - full of carnality and fire - and I idly wondered what that movie might have been like.