Director Craig Brewer’s last film was the aesthetically ugly and vulgar, but surprisingly affecting Hustle & Flow. His new film about Southern idealism Black Snake Moan is equally unattractive, but fortunately equally, if not even more effective than the first. The film has been marketed horribly, as none of the previews show the film’s dramatic and melodramatic happenings, instead focusing on Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci’s confrontations that are the only bad part of the film. Sometimes they are so over-the-top one feels they are watching a school play that re-enacts some old Christian-themed story. That is, if that school allowed nudity, sex, profanity, and violence against women in their plays.
Brewer includes all of this offensive material in a Christian film, because he is not only trying to send a message, he wants to send it in the Gothic style that he so often talks about wanting to popularize. That style entails a lot of unpleasantries and while Brewer does not take it too far, his imagery may provoke some negative reaction from his own target audience. Of course conflicting imagery is always compelling to me and I didn’t mind. I looked at all the ugliness with an open mind and that let me understand why it existed. The end of the film is definitely a pro-religious message that may be met with groans by some people (ugly atheists is my best guess), but is one that caps off this twisted film in a way that it leaves the audience with a good feeling about watching this film.
In all honesty, the plot is not all that complicated, nor is it compelling at first glance. Lazarus (played very well by Samuel L. Jackson) – a God-fearing old school Southerner who lives alone, stumbles upon a troubled woman – Rae (Christina Ricci in one of her strongest performances to date) who has a sinful condition that needs to be fixed. In this case the condition is nymphomania – illustrated here by a sex scene between Rae and her estranged army man boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), and also by showing Rae naked or nearly naked through most of the running time.
It should not be surprising that Lazarus and his friend Rev. R. L. (John Cothan Jr.) sturdily disapprove of Rae’s behavior. But instead of taking Rev R.L.’s advice of healing solely through religious preaching, he decides to spice things up a bit… by tying Rae up with a chain until she stops thinking about sex all the time!!! The film becomes surreal in the way it depicts these events, and if you let it take you along for the ride, you will easily be enamored in its tight emotional grip. Of course one only needs to watch Brewer’s previous film Hustle & Flow to find one as equally unbelievable as this. Brewer’s films are almost pure fantasy, fashioned for the sole purpose of sending a message, but their setting is always familiar which makes the goings on endlessly more effective. No one can deny Brewer’s skill in mixing different filmmaking elements together to create a believable environment within the characters’ premises.
At one point during the film, while she is chained, Rae attempts masturbation. I say attempts, because Lazarus quickly, as if called by God, interrupts the proceedings. The punishment for such wrongdoing on her part is simply an elongation of her captivity, coupled with some preaching of the Truth by Lazarus that is mostly in a loud tone. Audiences will question why Lazarus only pities Rae’s psychological mindset and does not mind the physical harm that his heavy chain inflicts upon her. Brewer is prepared with the age old argument that mental stability and goodness transcends into physical health and healing, but it is a tough one to buy. Rae is exploited throughout the first two acts of this film and one warrants this is Brewer forgetting what the whole point of the film is.
Which is a small quib, considering he gains it back in the third act – an emotional, appropriately over-the-top spectacle that hits on many different topics until finally reaching its religious message. One feels that if the third act emotion was represented in all the parts of the film, this could be as good as last year’s The Second Chance, but Brewer chooses a less straight-forward approach and risks losing the effect on a big percentage of his audience. But at least the two leads don’t let him down when it really counts. Samuel L. Jackson is better than solid here and he makes his character way more multi-dimensional then one would expect. He really needed a lift like this after Snakes on a Plane and while this might not totally get him out of hot water, it is a great step up. Christina Ricci’s performance while raunchy and exaggerated, is her best performance since 2001’s Prozac Nation (which happens to be a performance that is exactly the opposite of this one – gloomy and silent). I think Ricci needs to be in a big movie again, as her last one was Sleepy Hollow – Sleepy f-ing Hollow… Ricci needs a big role again.
As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, Timberlake does nothing with a nothing role, but there are a few surprises here and there like the wonderful Cothan Jr. who is turning out to be an unsung talent at a late age. Another surprise is rapper David Banner whose performance here, although short, is memorable enough to rival a lot of performances by so-called ‘real’ actors these days. But Brewer is known for being able to direct rappers well – Ludacris in Hustle & Flow is a good example of that.
Technically, the film is a touch cookie to crack. On one hand I understand the visual style is appropriate to the story, but on the other – it’s just so unattractive. It’s as if cinematographer Amy Vincent was told to have the camera film the characters in angles that are unpleasantly reminiscent of bad TV shows that try to make things look ‘realistic’. Or maybe she was told to make everything more vivid than needed (memories of bad examples in Indian cinema come to mind) so the splashes of color are as conflicting as the film’s thematic scope. But maybe it all works fine for the movie. To edit a film as twisted as this one must have been a tough job, so I have to commend Billy Fox for handling himself well. Nothing Oscar-worthy here, but the mere fact this film flows as well as it doe, given the circumstances and plot, is something of a small miracle. Looking at all the technicalities of the film though, you kind of start expecting they would be average – it is a Southern Gothic after all, it’s meant to be rough around the edges.
Overall, I do recommend this film due to some excellent acting and directing that work well together to send a positive message. Yeah, the film is not that great to look at (even though Ricci’s breasts have gotten back to a good size again) and Justin Timberlake is in it, but these are small bones I have to pick when it comes to this film. I think if one watches this film with an open mind they will get much more out of it then expected. This is a film that surprises, and is not empty of jolts that will keep people interested. Recommended.