Thursday, August 16, 2007
Movie review: Black Snake Moan
When I saw the trailer for Black Snake Moan (it was one of the interminable previews that take up the first 30 minutes of any cinema viewing experience) I was intrigued. The snippets of dialog and imagery hinted at a psychological thriller a la Milton Katselas' When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? To add to the attraction, Black Snake Moan's leading man was Samuel L. Jackson in what appeared to be an entirely new role: that of a deeply religious and moral black man in impoverished Dixie. And, let's face it, there are few actors today that can bring to bear as much intensity, menace, and intimidation as Jackson.
The movie's director, Craig Brewer was an unknown to me. He has a number of films to his credit, none of which I have seen, but the image he portrays, judging from the little bit I've seen and read, is of a true son of Dixie, southern Gothic from the school of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
The plot revolves around the slowly crumbling lives of two people: Rae (Christina Ricci), a sex-crazed young woman, racing toward her own destruction in a poor, rural southern community, and Lazarus (Jackson), a former blues guitar player and local legend. As the movie opens, Rae is distraught because her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), in an attempt to forge a future for the two of them, is leaving town to report for duty in the National Guard. Meanwhile, Lazarus learns that his wife is leaving him for his younger brother and that his atonement for past transgressions has been in vain.
As the plot develops, Brewer draws his viewers in successfully. Within hours of Ronnie's leaving, Rae has reverted to her nymphomaniacal ways, sleeping with the local crack dealer, then going on a drunken spree that ends with her laying half-naked and severely beaten on a dirt road outside town. Lazarus, waking the next morning, finds her there and carries her into the house to care for her. When Lazarus drives to town for medicine, but fails to alert the authorities to the fact that there is a beaten young woman in his home, viewers are prepared for the kind of intense psychological interplay that is the meat of what makes anyone a Samuel L. Jackson fan. The tension is raised further when, later that night, Lazarus, without having displayed even the least interest in her sexually, chains Rae to his radiator to prevent her from returning to her sinful lifestyle (as we later learn). As Rae regains her senses and contemplates their mutual predicament, both she and Lazarus are forced to confront demons from their past in order to escape from their respective roads to destruction.
Alas, alas. Despite this wonderful, agonizingly slow build up, the film does not deliver. Jackson's performance is probably the best in the film, but it is far from his personal best. (And, why, oh why, must he be made to say "motherfucker" repeatedly in every film he does?) Ricci's performance as Rae was barely adequate, and Timberlake's was quite weak. But, in fairness to all these actors, there is only so much that can be done with the unvarnished (some might say "ineloquent") dialog, which lacks any memorable lines. There is no charming Southern diction; no flavor.
When the movie ended, I had no real understanding of how either of the principals in the story had been transformed. Yes, Rae came away from the ordeal with a new determination to make a go of her life with Ronnie. Yes, Lazarus had taken up the blues again, and had a new love interest in the local pharmacist. But what were the lessons they had learned?
When Lazarus removes the chain from around Rae's waist, viewers imagine that he has finally learned the futility of trying to keep his wife from leaving. Rae, on the other hand, marries Ronnie and ties a gold chain around her waist to remind her of the tie she has to her husband and to keep her from straying. If you love something set it free? If it comes back, it is yours forever?
Give me a break! I came into the film expecting (hoping) to have another facet of life's complexity examined. I left it feeling I had been subjected to an unadorned version of the sentiments one is likely to find in a Hallmark greeting card.