Blues Roots Take Hold In Craig Brewer's Gothic Tale of Redemption

Maui Time | February 23, 2007
Wicked Gravity

Blues Roots Take Hold In Craig Brewer’s Gothic Tale of Redemption

Black Snake Moan (Four Stars)

By Cole Smithey (903 words)

The title “Black Snake Moan” comes from Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song about going blind, and the swampy imagery serves as a beacon of primal anguish for writer/director Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”). On the outskirts of Memphis, Rae (Christina Ricci) suffers from an anxiety disorder that causes desperate fits of nymphomania that her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) sates. But as soon as Iraq-destined Ronnie leaves for boot camp, Rae immediately returns to seeking out promiscuous sex with every guy in her path. Her indiscretion leads to a brutal beating that puts her left-for-dead on a dirt road near the house of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) a former Blues singer turned farmer. Lazarus’ chivalrous decision to risk his own life to save Rae leads him to chain her to his farmhouse radiator for an unpredictable sort of moral, mental and physical salvation. Brewer’s hard-bitten drama isn’t merely defiant; it spits fire at America’s phony media-fed version of itself. It displays human struggle on an intimate scale that prompts its audience to reflect on their own misconceptions.

Musical legend Son House sets the film’s dramatic framework from a black-and-white clip of him describing how the tension in the Blues consists between male and female. The documentary footage cuts to Rae and Ronnie having passionate sex just moments before he leaves for military service. Like a spoiled pet, Rae chases after her boyfriend as he rides away in his best friend Gill’s pickup truck. Her mood soon switches from needy to naughty when a giant tractor dwarfs her tiny frame on a dirt road that she saunters down in revealing cut-off jeans and midriff T-shirt. The tractor driver honks incessantly at Rae who flips him the bird without looking back as she slowly leads him down her road.

After taking a handful of mixed drugs at an outdoor party, Rae accepts a ride home from Gill (Michael Raymond-James) and makes the mistake of offering herself up to him. He takes advantage of the situation to violently act out his insecurities on her and leave her for dead.

Already, Brewer has pulled us deep into a demimonde of subversive realness that transcends time. We know Rae as simultaneously contemptible and compatible but are drawn to her as a protagonist we care about. The T-shirt that she wears for much of the film has an American flag and a Confederate flag crossing one another as a rebel symbol that would make Hillary Clinton fume. Rae isn’t just any slut of local renown; she is a force-of-nature freedom fighter on a mission to screw the world into submission.

Lazarus is a farmer suffering deep emotional pain over his wife’s decision to abandon their marriage of 12-years to take up with his brother. He drives a tractor over her old rose garden after meeting with her in a restaurant in an attempt at reconciliation that she refutes. This is the real South where political rhetoric means nothing against the hot sun that intensifies the nuisance of every gnat, mosquito and fly. As Lazarus will soon point out to his neighborly preacher R.L. (John Cothran), this is a place where “being black and nearby” are cause for punishment.

When Rae awakens in Lazarus’ house and realizes the debt she owes him, she offers herself to him. His clear refusal of sex shifts their paradigm into a realm that neither of them understands. It isn’t until she tries to run away before she’s well that he chains her to the radiator with a long heavy chain that repeats Brewer’s unnerving image system of a snake representing the tool of an avenging angel (Lazarus) to bind Rae away from her sin. The other tool that Lazarus uses is pulled out from beneath his bed in the guise of an old Gibson guitar. His reconnection with the instrument forms a basis of musical associations that enter Rae’s consciousness like rungs on a ladder toward a different kind of physical release.

Lazarus seeks out information about Rae from a local drug dealer familiar with her sudden and intense need for sex. He invites his preacher, and a local boy who discovers Rae chained up in heat, over for dinner. These are just two of the ways that Lazarus reintroduces Rae to the community even as he presides over her as her keeper. When Rae’s period of bondage is over, Lazarus has rewired her into wearing dresses. It’s in her newfound persona that she publicly confronts her mother about the childhood abuse that caused her psychosexual condition. Without giving anything away, the scene gets at the crux of the story in a public setting and damns the mother figure as the culpable person responsible for the damage we have witnessed.

Craig Brewer is an American auteur in the Martin Scorsese sense of the term. Like Scorsese’s early films, Brewer draws on the inner workings of a slice of American experience that seems foreign. Like De Niro’s Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets,” Christina Ricci’s anti-heroine is treated with a respect and patience that only her creator can preserve. “Black Snake Moan” is not the best film that Craig Brewer will ever write and direct, but it comes from the most original and independent filmmaker out there.

Rated R, 116 mins. (B+)


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