It is not especially noteworthy that Craig Brewer has put his fetishes up on the big screen for the whole world to see. The achievement is in how well he manages to make them resemble art.
The director’s 2004 film “Hustle and Flow” made a case for misunderstood pimps everywhere. The film followed the travails of Deejay, a pimp played by Terrence Howard who struggled with a predictably tragic desire for legitimacy. Armed with two women who he rented out by the hour and one temporarily sidelined by pregnancy, Djay pursued his dream of becoming a rap star. The film garnered an Oscar nomination for Mr. Howard and earned a statuette for the original song “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp,” introducing the Academy Awards stages to such lyrical gems as “Wait I got a snow bunny, and a black girl too / You pay the right price and they’ll both do you.”
Now in “Black Snake Moan,” Mr. Brewer takes his fascination with underweight blonde girls a step further. Like Taryn Manning in “Hustle and Flow,” Ms. Ricci parades across the screen in next to no clothing, with a tough exterior that betrays past exploitation and an inherent timidity.
The advertising for the film seems intent to prove that a puerile interest in near nudity and sex addiction is a legitimate justification for a film. The trailer features Ms. Ricci writhing in her underwear and posters place Samuel L. Jackson menacing over Ms. Ricci’s barely clad body with a thick chain in his hand. To underscore the sadomasochism angle, or perhaps just to explain the overall sweatiness of the posters, the tagline teases, “It’s Hotter Down South.”
The film does not fail to deliver on this titillating promise. The film opens to Ms. Ricci in bed with Justin Timberlake, who plays her boyfriend Ronnie. Soon after Ronnie has shipped off to boot camp and Rae is sleeping with Tehronne (David Banner). At this point Ms. Ricci is wearing cut off shorts and half a top and soon plays topless football in her underwear. Though she eventually finds what passes for a top, her shorts are lost forever when she ends up beaten to a pulp on Lazurus’s (Mr. Jackson) doorstep. Learning that Rae has a “fever” for sex, Lazarus takes it upon himself to “cure her of her wickedness.” While recovering from a bad beating on Lazarus’s couch, Rae continually tries to run off. Naturally, Lazarus responds by chaining her by the waist to his radiator.
Aside from pure lasciviousness on the part of the filmmaker, it is unclear why Rae needed to be chained by the waist, or why Lazurus would wait a week to purchase her anything to wear besides a pair of white panties and a ripped up shirt.
And yet Mr. Brewer uses this strange lens to create a classic redemption tale. Ms. Rae’s sexual recklessness is a response to abuse and neglect. Similarly, Lazarus has retreated from life after his wife left him for his brother. Through the (very) strange friendship the two develop, they find the strength they need to right their lives.
No sooner is Rae chained to the radiator than she has been healed. Though Mr. Brewer’s strange obsession with overt sexuality must certainly bring bodies into the theater, it also does play a role in his work. The director has a gift with salacious material, but he wields his skills equally in translating religion and music to the screen. Both of his recent films are set in the deep south of Memphis and he uses the same approach to raw sexuality to depict the music scenes there.
BOTH “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” are based on the capabilities of his characters as musicians. Period films like “Dreamgirls” and “That Thing You Do” trade in a sort of recreation aesthetic, where the costumes and hairdos reminisce about a time period long gone by. The original scores in those films are far less important than recreating the feeling of the time. Mr. Brewer’s films actually make a case for the music he has created on screen.
Here, Mr. Jackson looks like a natural bluesman, and scenes of his playing do not disappoint. Archival footage of bluesman Son House are interspersed throughout the film, and when Lazarus finally picks up his guitar to perform in public again, the music is supernaturally alive. Similarly, Ms. Ricci’s light and quavering voice lends a luminescence to a small scene of her picking up the guitar as well.
MR. BREWER also makes a strong case for traditional religion that is rare for Hollywood. With his Old Testament name, Lazarus takes to the bible to help Rae. Unconvinced by religion, she finds the idea of forgiveness hypocritical: “you can’t just turn around and ask for forgiveness… Why would heaven want people like that?” she asks Lazurus’s preacher friend R.L. (John Cothran Jr.). With organized religion represented by the warm hearted R.L., “Black Snake Moan” makes a case for non-judgmental religion. R.L. makes a very pragmatic case for religion: “There’s sin in my heart, there’s evil in the world. But when I’m all alone, I talk to God.”
By contrast, Rae eventually sheds her shackles and returns to town to meet with the disapproving stares of the townspeople. The stares, in addition to a disparaging interaction with her mother, send Rae right back into self-inflicted rebelliousness that had been her downfall earlier.
These scenes are especially interesting in contrast to the way the film presents itself. Mr. Brewer’s advertising and much of the overt sexualism of the film easily draws the same kind of judgment from viewers as Rae inspires from those around her. But in reforming her, Mr. Brewer tries to redeem his film.
And there is enough humor and genuine appeal that this almost works. Until the end, when the fine balance of self-mockery and raw sexuality begin to unhinge. Especially with the tiny belly chain that Rae wears to remind her to keep her “fever” in check.
That this little gold chain is the silliest part of an S&M rollick that trades in stereotypes says quite a bit about Mr. Brewer’s abilities to distract and win over his audience.
Meghan Keane is a writer living in New York City.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire