“There’s only one kind of blues… That consists between male and female.”
So says bluesman Son House in the first of a series of B&W 1930s vintage clips that are sprinkled through the film. For you see, “Black Snake Moan” is all about the blues and by extension, that male and female thing… Be it rooted in love or deceiving, pain or pleasure. Nearly all songs grow from that, but it’s never as raw as in blues. Blues is like a mantra, a cathartic attempt to chase those demons away, you might even say an exorcism.
And if blues is an exorcism (as Muddy Waters once said), “Black Snake Moan” is pretty much “The Exorcist”. While it kind of is an ensemble piece where the small Tennessee town in which it takes place is practically a character, the core of it is a pas de deux between a “possessed” girl and a God-fearing man aiming to cure her of her “wickedness”. There ain’t no head-spinning or green puking going on, though – the Devil in Miss Rae (Christina Ricci) solely manifests itself through her insatiable sexual urges. And old Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) ain’t actually a priest, just a former juke-joint bluesman turned crop farmer who’s got emotional issues of his own to work out.
“Black Snake Moan”, which takes its title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, is the latest film from writer-director Craig Brewer. I still haven’t seen his debut, “The Poor and the Hungry” (DVD, anyone?), but between this and Hustle & Flow, Brewer is establishing himself as one hell of an auteur. The two pictures perfectly flow into each other, and it ain’t just the yellow blaxploitation titles and the deep-fried North Mississippi setting. It’s Brewer’s inherent understanding of mood and texture, the way you can almost smell the sweat, cigarette smoke and moonshine, characters that are both larger than life and down to earth, and the fearless performances he gets out of his actors.
Ricci fully throws herself in this dirty blonde, white trash, volcanic nympho, who spends nearly the whole movie in panties and in (and out of) a half shirt. “Girl got an itch… She got that sickness… She goes crazy…” Does she ever! Rae gets these spells that knock her over, and she desperately needs to “get fucked up”, in all senses of the phrase, to wash out the things that are haunting her. The worst part is that she’s found a healthier way to find solace, in the love she shares with her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), but when he goes out of town (he’s in the National Guard, possibly bound for Iraq), the fever takes over again.
Opposite her, Jackson is just as great, taking on an initially disturbing character and pouring his soul into him, not unlike how Terrence Howard did in Hustle & Flow. Here’s a man who’s not above holding a broken beer bottle or a shotgun up at someone, a man full of anger at his wife who gone and left him, for his brother of all people. Balding, with a greying beard and a stained wife-beater, this isn’t the stylish and cool Sam Jackson we’re used to. This is a broken man, who starts healing a little when he starts caring for Rae. His methods are unorthodox to say the least (if you’ve seen the trailer or posters, you know it involves a big-ass chain!), but the tenderness that eventually develops between him and the girl is as undeniable as it might seem unlikely.
Another unexpected thing about Jackson is that he reveals to be a kickass blues singer and, I think, guitarist (I’m not sure it’s always his playing we’re hearing). That’s another great skill of Brewer, he totally nails how to use sound and particularly music. Hustle & Flow and “Black Snake Moan” are almost musicals, not just because they have scorchin’ soundtracks but because characters often best express themselves through song, be it Jackson’s staggering performance of the title track with an electric guitar during a thunderstorm or Ricci’s heartbreaking singing of This Little Light of Mine. Both films are basically stories about finding your voice, about how “every man has the right to contribute a verse.”
Beyond the two leads, the film features many other solid acting turns, notably by Kim Richards as Rae’s mama, S. Epatha Merkerson as a lady who takes kindly to Lazarus, John Cothran Jr. as a preacher and, last but not least, Justin Timberlake (who, ironically, doesn’t get to sing). This is the second film this year (after “Alpha Dog”) in which JT steals nearly every scene he’s in. I wouldn’t spoil the details of his big moments, but his character’s anxiety attacks pull you in to a scary extent.
“Black Snake Moan” tackles some highly sensitive issues and it has a little wicked fun making sure that the well-thinkers will be horrified by it, but if you stick with it, you’ll see that its excesses are earned and that this is a heartfelt, thoughtful piece. Craig Brewer is the real deal, he can go anywhere from here.