February 28-March 6, 2007

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'Black Snake Moan'

Photograph by Bruce Talamon
Blues doctor: Samuel L. Jackson's blues musician sets out to cure Christina Ricci in 'Black Snake Moan.'

Gator Bait

The blues provides some sexual healing in Craig Brewer's jivey 'Black Snake Moan'

By Richard von Busack

DON'T DESPAIR, jive turkeys! There's hope for you in the Industry. Take Craig Brewer, director of Hustle & Flow. Truly, a fully fledged, wobbling and gobbling jive turkey, a platter-eagle of such dimension as to make Quentin Tarantino seem restrained when it comes to dressing up his work in black people's tropes.

In parallel scenes in Black Snake Moan, Brewer's newest, Brewer tells of a raging Tennessee farmer and former blues musician named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). The man is just about to lose his religion and kill his two-timing ex-wife.

Across town, Rae (Christina Ricci) is in similar need of healing. Her lover, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), is just about to head off to the Army, and both are absolutely puking sick about it.

Depicting this kind of trauma is to Brewer's credit. As always, Timberlake looks like a stand-in for a real actor, but in these days, the possibility of such a separation does have a sting.

In record time after she puts Ronnie on the bus, Rae runs amok, washing down Oxycontin with keg beer and playing topless football in the dead of night. Used by acquaintances and beaten up by one of her trysts, she ends up passed-out in the middle of the dirt road in front of Lazarus' house.

With ancient ancestral wisdom, Lazarus begins to realize that girl has a dybbuk in her, making her promiscuous and prone to drugs. He chains her to the radiator in his house for her own protection.

What Rae needs is good home cooking, sponge baths and a session with the blues. The two console one another, and Lazarus returns to the music circuit he hasn't played in decades, although the matter of a chained-up white girl in his house understandably complicates Lazarus' relationship with Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) a lady he knows from church.

Jackson's blues performance of "Bucket of Blood" has loads of feeling and menace. But watching Jackson preach the blues in this particular film is like a visit to the House of Blues, the ultimate jive-turkey coop. Seeing the great B.B. King a few years ago at the House of Blues in Vegas was what another great man called "sweet sorrow." What an honor to see him, but the flying jive-turkey feathers were getting up my nose: folk art—uncredited folk art—used as wallpaper; a one-toned crowd, $6 Buds—achoo!

Brewer flaunts blues credentials from the title of this film right on down. As a Greek chorus, he includes black-and-white kinescopes of Son House. His production company is called "Southern Cross the Dog," railroad slang needing no translation to the serious Delta blues fan.

And yet the jive-turkey supreme moment isn't that Brewer has made the 400th version of Somerset Maugham's Rain, with a promiscuous woman and a churchly man fighting one another. Nor is it really the moment where Rae's dybbuk makes her pounce on a young male friend of Lazarus', and Lazarus smiles afterward, treating it like a boys-will-be-boys moment.

No, the essential jive-turkeyness here is Brewer's fatal confusion of sacred and profane music. That's a matter not taken lightly in the South, and indeed a division that haunted more than one blues musician.

Taking Rae to church and purging her with gospel—well, that would be too Christian. Taming her dybbuk with barre chords is something the secular audience might accept. For those who can't buy the idea of the devil making Rae run amok, we get a pop-psychological reason that's slightly more credible today. (Nobody ever goes bad on their own anymore.) Insisting on the quick happy ending is yet another way Brewer shows the wattles and tail-feathers of you know what.

Eventually, Rae gets handed down from this surrogate father to another man, trading one chain for another. "Sexist" isn't a word I use lightly—come to think of it, last time I used it was for Hustle & Flow.

Black Snake Moan isn't a complete bad time. Brewer has a gifted cinematographer, Amy Vincent (Caveman's Valentine); the wide-screen vistas of the heat and deep greens and slowness of the South makes this crazy fable visually convincing. Scott Bomar's score is augmented with the finest of the Fat Possum catalogue.

And you have to give kink its due: Black Snake Moan does really provide a good look at Christina Ricci in her underwear, all wrapped up in a chrome-steel chain.

Maybe it's all a matter of context. Black Snake Moan would have been a different movie at a kudzu-covered drive-in somewhere south of Louisville. Seen in those circumstances, it might have been easier to cut this movie the immense wedge of slack it needs.

Movie Times Black Snake Moan (R; 116 min.), directed and written by Craig Brewer, photographed by Amy Vincent and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake and S. Epatha Merkerson, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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