March 10, 2007

Black Snake Moan

When I saw Bridge to Terabithia, the deceptive advertising made me furious. I can't say that the advertising for Black Snake Moan is any less deceptive, but unlike the Terabithia campaign it is totally in-sync with the off-kilter sensibility of the film it represents.
Yes, Black Snake Moan centres around a black man who chains a white nymphomaniac up in his house. No, that's not what the film is about. These two people offer each other something they cannot find within themselves. The film captures a common humanity, clashing Southern sensibilities, and the humour inherent in that which is dark and tragic.
Yes, despite my lofty declarations, there is plenty of humour. Those who venture into the film looking for the laughs the trailers promise will not be disappointed. But don't count on spending the running time laughing at outlandish caricatures. Both the laughs and the characters dug much deeper than I'd expected.
The scenario may be outlandish, but the lives they led to bring them to this point are driven by demons all too common and real. Flashes of symbolic imagery and veiled yet weighty inferences map out a childhood of abuse and neglect for Rae, the little nympho. Lazarus, the black man, loses his wife to his younger brother — she made a tragic decision that extinguished the flame they shared.
Samuel L. Jackson infuses Lazarus with many of the distinctive qualities that we've come to expect from his performances. At the same time, he pulls back in small but important ways. Lazarus is a man of fire and violence. But he is also a gentleman, charming and careful as a matter of course. When he finds another woman who can kindle his flame, he doesn't sweep her into his arm. He courts her, conveying his affection with just the right words and little gestures of friendship and kindness.
Christina Ricci manages to find a true Southern lady inside Rae. She correctly treats the lewd behaviour and crude language asked of her as emotional scar tissue that has gathered over the top. Once Rae finds herself forcibly taken under Lazarus's care, the emotional scarring begins to fade away and the Southern belle is there to shine through. By the time she finally rejoins the outside world, she is able to be flirtatious and yet somehow chaste. Lazarus's chains have let Rae take control over the sexual fire within.
I highlight the surprising complexity of these performances for a reason. It's not the characters that the film allows us to laugh at, its the sheer audacity of the film itself. Immediately after the preacher from Lazarus's church first sees Rae, half-naked and chained up to the radiator, Lazarus calmly and sensibly explains the situation and insists that he stay for dinner. The humour comes from the way events organically conspired to bring us rationally to a moment of such absurdity.
Speaking of the preacher, religion proves key to the movie's soul. That Rae should be dumped at the end of Lazarus's driveway is an act of providence. That the preacher should support Lazarus, and that Lazarus should support Rae is an act of humanity at its best. At one point, the preacher stares Rae in the eyes and tells her not to worry about heaven. For these characters, it's enough to seek God for the here and now. Movies with a Northern sensibility address God with suspicion and cynicism. This movie — moving to slower and sturdier Southern rhythms — takes for granted God's role as a focal point for hope, civility and self respect.
Music is also essential to the film's soul. Frederick Douglass wrote in his first autobiography that any one who heard the singing of a slave as he did would be an instant convert to the cause of abolition, the sound was so desperate and pained. That's the kind of music Lazarus plays. Even when he has a bar full of people on their feet dancing, that's the kind of music Lazarus plays. As temperate and composed as he is, his guitar is the only outlet he has to unburden his soul. At one point, as the thunder and rain pours down outside and Rae holds close like a child, his play reaches such an intensity that it's actually frightening.
Rae also finds catharsis in Lazarus's music, and gradually begins to find music of her own. While music allows Lazarus to feel angry and sad and lost, music allows Rae to feel joy. Her voice, high and clear like a bell, captures something she looked to sex for but could never find. The song that rises out of her, fittingly enough a negro spiritual, is a perfect metaphor for her journey.
This is the best executed coming of age story I've seen in a long time. Every decision strikes confidently true. The characters grow in real and meaningful ways, and the journey — while completely outrageous — never takes a shortcut or cheats. The visual metaphors, captured in quick cuts that serve a thematic rather than narrative purpose, aren't clich├ęs but fit so well they feel like they should be. I'd heard good things about Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer's first film, but never bothered to see it. Black Snake Moan cements Brewer as a unique and important Southern voice. ()


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