The mere title of Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan is insinuating enough, but have you seen its posters? They show a simpering, scantily clad white female—a nympho?—with a heavy chain wrapped around her, a chain held by a sweating, muscular black man clad in one of those sleeveless white T-shirts known as "wife beaters."
The unapologetically sleazoid style of the poster art suggests vintage Argosy magazine, or a 1950s paperback for an Erskine Caldwell potboiler. And then there's the film's lip-smacking slogan: "Everything is HOTTER down South!"
Poster art is like any kind of packaging: It's meant to give consumers in an ADD culture some idea of the product inside. But what does this image suggest to you of Black Snake Moan? That it's the trashiest exploitation picture unleashed on the nation since Carroll Baker hung up her fishnets, replete with prurient Southern stereotypes that would do Al Capp proud? Or that it's a cheeky postmodern send-up of that kind of joint?
While that second guess may be closer to the mark, Black Snake Moan is neither naïve sleaze nor smarty-pants satire. Besides being the first great movie of 2007, Brewer's film represents a fundamentally serious—and seriously entertaining—effort to forge a new kind of Southern cinema from the detritus of old clichés and pop-culture flotsam.
A little backstory. At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, I moderated a panel titled "Southern Exposures" that concerned a trend Sundance had noted in that year's entries: films about the South evidencing fresh views of the region by young, native-Southern filmmakers. The five movies represented on the panel included two N.C. indies, Tim Kirkman's Loggerheads and Phil Morrison's Junebug, as well as Tennessean Brewer's Hustle & Flow, which won the festival's Audience Award and sold to Paramount for a whopping $9.5 million.
For me, the most interesting part of the panel came when the filmmakers were asked about stereotypes. As I recall, the question was along the lines of, "How do you avoid Southern stereotypes?" Brewer, Kirkman and Morrison all demurred, saying they weren't sure they wanted to avoid those gnarly hand-me-downs—or could if they wanted to.
Their position was that stereotypes are part of the culture and of the Southern artist's raw materials, no less than drawls or JESUS SAVES billboards. They aren't to be avoided, banished or even "subverted," in the pointy-headed academic sense, but rather played with, goosed, turned upside-down and inside-out, to yield new meanings.
In Hustle & Flow, Brewer took a number of familiar movie clichés and regional givens (redeemable pimps, golden-hearted ho's, inner-city desperation, hip hop as a route out of poverty) and mixed them in a cocktail that was given its kick by the sense that it was showing us a slice of the South—specifically, Brewer's hometown of Memphis—in a way we'd never seen before, a way at once exuberantly imaginative and almost anthropologically exacting.
Black Snake Moan is much the same, only different. Where the last movie's musical nuclear core was the Southern form of hip hop known as crunk, this time it's the blues: the kind that still makes deals with the devil as it snakes north from the Delta (the film's title comes from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song). Where Hustle was planted firmly in echt-urban Memphis, the new film ventures out to small-town Tennessee. And in contrast to the previous movie's gritty, almost documentary-like feel, this one is all plush colors and luxuriant widescreen compositions—like a 1950s studio pipe dream.
As was its predecessor, Black Snake Moan is a redemption story. Only here, the central dynamic isn't between despair and faith (a secular version, though still in pursuit of grace) but between those other great Southern fundaments, sin and salvation. And wouldn't you know, the battle royale crosses barriers of both gender and race.
Rae (Christina Ricci) is the town tramp, a girl with a hapless boyfriend named Ronny (Justin Timberlake) but also with a history that seemingly encompasses most males within a 20-mile radius. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), not one of her conquests so far, is a farmer and sometimes-bluesman who doesn't seem to have picked up a guitar lately, due to being completely bummed over his wife's leaving him for his no-count brother.
Rae and Lazarus' fateful intersection occurs, you might say, thanks to their both being in extremis—her physically, him emotionally. After Ronny, a nervous wreck given to anxiety attacks, ships out for Iraq, Rae starts fooling around immediately, and ends up late one night in a pickup truck with her honey's best friend, Gil (Michael Raymond-James). When she makes a derogatory comment about his male equipment, Gil beats her to a bloody pulp and leaves her lying in the road.
It's roughly 50 minutes into the film before Lazarus finds Rae and, once he sees the delirium her injuries provoke, chains her to a radiator in his place. During that time, Brewer's narrative zigs and zags in a way that keeps you wondering what's next. We watch Rae flouncing through town, right up to the convenience store where her hard-bitten mom, an employee, sees her coming and calls out, "Cigarettes or condoms?" We observe Lazarus break a beer bottle and pin his brother on a pool table, because his lying, dissembling sibling has been so impolitic as to tell Laz he loves him.
This is all backstory and dramatic scene-setting, of course, as in many movies. But Brewer does it in a way that not only keeps us slightly off-balance throughout, but that also makes us feel the pleasure in pure story-weaving that undergirds his enterprise. A very Southern trait, that.
When that heavy chain finally goes around Rae's waist and snaps tight as she throws her angry weight against it, it's like the whole movie snaps tight, too. The image of the chained white girl and glowering black man has an almost preternatural force—a reminder that in this part of the country, human bondage has a dark history, as does the old taboo of interracial sex.
Naturally, Rae instantly thinks that sex is what Lazarus wants, and she's ready to oblige, as long as he'll let her go when he's done. But Lazarus has a Bible at the ready and other objectives in mind. He wants to get Rae over an injury that kept her weaving in and out of consciousness for two fevered days. But more than restoring the girl's body, he wants to heal her soul, to cure her wicked ways—as if doing so might also slay the demon dogs that have been on his trail so long.
Thus is the stage set for a confrontation that will pit flesh against spirit, and that will bring Lazarus' blues guitar back into action on a night when the wind howls and lightning invades his ramshackle house like a police searchlight from Above.
Clearly, Brewer here has little truck with mere mundane realism. He's trying to push past the clichéd into the genuinely mythical and archetypal. That's a nervy, supremely ambitious artistic goal, and one of Black Snake Moan's considerable fascinations lies in observing the skills Brewer deploys in trying to accomplish it.
His increasingly fluid and supple stylistic sense is one of those; the film's smartly elegant visual plan radiates a confidence and creative verve that are almost infectious. And then there's Brewer's way with actors.
Ricci here is flat-out phenomenal, giving a gutsy, bravely insouciant performance that to my mind is far more impressive than any of those recent Oscar-nominated turns. Playing her boyfriend, Timberlake holds his own like a complete pro, a happy omen for his fledgling acting career. And Jackson turns in work so sharp and commanding as to make you wonder why no one thought to cast him as a Southern bluesman years ago.
Jackson's presence inevitably brings to mind Quentin Tarantino (who, like Jackson, Brewer and Timberlake, hails from Tennessee: What is it in the moonshine out there?). The two filmmakers have been compared before, and while for many young directors the comparison is one to be avoided, in Brewer's case it has a certain purpose. Like Tarantino he deliberately revivifies outworn pop mythology through a concentrated application of sheer audacity and style.
Yet, in reviewing Hustle & Flow, I wrote, "the quality that ultimately makes the movie so intriguing is more ineffable. Call it a sincerity that's rooted in both conviction and place." That latter quality is what Tarantino doesn't have. His movies transpire in a never-never land of the cinematic imagination. Brewer's take place in the South—the mythic, archetypal, stereotypical South, but a very real place nonetheless.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that many non-Southern critics simply don't "get" Brewer. He's not politically correct, not ironic or fashionably oblique, and all of that some people take as offensive. But in my estimation he's one of the biggest talents to emerge in the American cinema in this decade, and no self-respecting Southern cinephile should miss seeing what he's up to. His work holds the promise of a Southern cinema that's true to its own cultural resources, a vision of wit and daring that might end up doing the whole nation a favor.