By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Black Snake Moan,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
“Black Snake Moan”
“Y’all ready for some shit?” a bald, bearded Samuel L. Jackson bellows near the climax of “Black Snake Moan.” Brother, you ain’t kidding. Not because Craig Brewer’s latest film, the highly watchable, highly curious, highly unclothed “BSM,” is shitty, but because, as Jackson’s character, an old farmer, bluesman and self-styled faith healer named Lazarus, implies, there is some crazy crap going on in it. Whatever criticisms we may level against Brewer, there’s no denying “Black Snake Moan” is unlike any other film made recently. You can boil it down to a logline it’s sort of “Misery” meets “The Exorcist” meets “A Dirty Shame” but even that doesn’t do justice to the passion of the filmmaking or the authentic wackiness of the story. Brewer’s “Hustle and Flow” may have felt an awful lot like a hip-hop version of “Saturday Night Fever”; “Black Snake Moan” is wholly original.
Set in a Deep South, deep poverty milieu like that of “Hustle and Flow,” the story begins in a small Tennessee town where the denizens are more likely to drive a tractor than a car, and where everyone knows the town floozy, Christina Ricci’s Rae. When her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leaves her to serve in Iraq, Rae goes on a sex, booze and drugs bender of astonishing proportions and, through a mixture of bad luck and worse luck, winds up unconscious and seminude at Lazarus’ doorstep. After Rae refuses to lie still amidst raging hallucinations and coughing fits, Laz decides to chain her to his radiator until he can “cure” her of her “wickedness.”
Lazarus is a former blues singer, and “Black Snake Moan” (itself named for an old Blind Lemon Jefferson tune) works as a lesson about the blues and as a sort of blues itself. An opening narration informs us there is only one kind of blues, and that is between a male and a female. Lazarus and Rae have that sort of relationship between them, one defined by sex and need, but really their story is about their failures as lovers and mates. We meet both characters as they are left by their significant others, Rae by Ronnie, Lazarus by his wife, now sleeping with his brother. While Ricci rarely wears a single article of clothing that covers the flesh below her middle thighs or her navel, and spends most of the movie writhing and/or crawling on the ground gripped by a sexual fever, the movie is more about the struggle to fill the emptiness in our lives than about how sexy Ricci is.
And yet there’s no denying or ignoring the way Brewer lingers on Ricci’s slim, half-dressed physique. Though “Black Snake Moan” is ultimately a redemption story, it doesn’t seem to mind delighting in its sins before it’s time to get redeemin’. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call some of the scenes exploitative hell, even the marketing sells the film as an exploitation picture.
But like many of the unappreciated filmmakers who made some of those old exploitation pictures, Brewer has legitimate artistic chops; a good ear for dialogue, a talent with actors and a knack for making films with really good soundtracks. At times his visuals are as saucy as his subject matter: a shot that captures Rae’s stupor by dragging the camera at a ninety-degree angle to the ground might just be the best approximation of drunkenness ever recorded on film.
Ricci is fearless and surprisingly touching, Jackson is fun (though at times his “SAY IT AGAIN MUTHA FUCKA!” shtick gets a little too close to “Pulp Fiction”‘s Jules) and Justin Timberlake looks remarkably naïve for a guy who most recently was seen bringing sexy back. The ending might be a little too pat, but I think that comes from the blues, too, which take on an increasingly important role in Rae’s (and Lazarus’) rehabilitation. “Ain’t not better cure for the blues than some good pussy,” someone says in “Black Snake Moan.” Rae’s story suggests that the reverse may be true as well.
“The Wayward Cloud”
It’s been over a year since I’ve seen it (as part of BAM’s once annually, now presumably defunct, “Best of” series programmed by The Village Voice), and the details are a little fuzzy, but I still give “The Wayward Cloud” a hearty blanket recommendation for anyone old enough to legally watch people have sex with bulbous fruits and then sing and dance about it. Yes, it’s a mondo-apocalypto-musical(o) romp from Tsai Ming-liang, whose previous picture, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” was a nearly silent film about a group of people (and, perhaps, ghosts) haunting a decrepit movie theater in the midst of a driving rain storm.
In “Dragon Inn” there was water everywhere; in “The Wayward Cloud,” there’s none to be found. A horrendous drought sends the characters in search of hydration wherever they can find it including the inside of a watermelon, which in turns becomes an object of desire both for the stomach and unmentionables as well. Rather graphic man-on-woman-on-produce sex ensues, as well as Tsai’s trademark long takes and, yes, minimal dialogue.
I recall not entirely following what was going on, and not particularly caring while I was completely enthralled by Tsai’s unusually frenetic pacing and camerawork (for him, anyway). I do remember wondering how different “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” would have been if “The Wayward Cloud” had been playing on the screen in its theater on that fateful night. To crib a line from “The Naked Gun,” you can learn a lot from something if it’s awful wet, and, in this case, you won’t come up dry.
“Black Snake Moan” opens wide on March 2 (official site); “The Wayward Cloud” is playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York until March 4.