Chains of Melodrama
Big scary black man keepin’ the little blonde white girl in chains? Oh my. Yes, you’ve seen the TV ads and the trailers and the posters that look precisely like some 1950s X-rated exploitation comic book, Samuel L. Jackson, deliberately ragged-ized and haggard-ized, as if he weren’t badass enough already, dragging around sweet Christina Ricci, suddenly platinum-haired and slinky-skinny and next to nekkid and with a forty-pound chain around her waist. What. The. Hell? Is it a commentary on the lingering impact of slavery in the South? An exploration of how racism continues to impact relations between people with pale skin and people with darker skin? Is this something that’s going to monumentally shake up American complacency about how we treat one another?
Not so much, actually. Black Snake Moan, it turns out, is nowhere near as provocative as you think it’s gonna be, as you’ve been led to believe it’s gonna be… which is something of a disappointment. Writer-director Craig Brewer crashed the Oscars a coupla years ago with his Hustle & Flow, which informed us how hard it is out there for a pimp with such panache, with such anger and bitterness and hope and drive that if you’re a fan of that film — as I am — you can’t help but expect that same brand of cinematic belligerence again here. Brewer was so damn aggressive, in the best possible way, with Hustle that he stoked our appetite for film that takes genuine risks, dares itself to go right up to a line, and maybe even cross over it. I expected to see that attitude again.
But Black Snake Moan? Well, I don’t want to label the film with the epithet of “poseur,” because it never sinks to so phony a level, but it also never presents the same kind of challenge to itself or to the audience that Hustle did — and worse, it’s the kind of challenge it seems to be setting up for itself. Moan teases us with a glib play at being incendiary, even offensive — which too few filmmakers know how to do in a pointed, meaningful way, and we know Brewer is one of them — but it is little more than, ahem, an afterschool special, if an R-rated one, about making new friends and finding new love amidst emotional ruins and recovering from a lifetime of abuse rather too quickly to be believed.
The Ricci character, you see — Rae is her name — is the local slut in small-town Tennessee, the girl with ultralow self-esteem who’ll do anything with anyone with enough booze and drugs in her system, which lands her, late one night, beaten up and unconscious in the road near the shotgun home of Jackson’s Lazarus. Lazarus is a man with his own problems: his wife just left him, for one. Will he arise from the psychological dead to live again? And will it be caring for this poor little tramp girl that does it for him? Unfortunately for those who thought this flick would be something other than a cliché, of course it will. Even if the cliché involves the big scary black man chaining the little blonde white girl to his radiator so she can’t run away and rejoin the hellish circus that is her pathetic excuse for a life.
Which isn’t to say that this isn’t an extremely well-produced example of the let’s-save-each-other-from-ourselves genre of melodrama. Jackson (Home of the Brave, Snakes on a Plane) and Ricci (Home of the Brave, Bless the Child) exude a peculiar kind of screen chemistry that is unusual to see on film, of a man and a woman bonding over something that has nothing to do with sexual attraction, that actually actively denies sexual attraction. Lazarus has to fend off Rae’s sad wildcat attempt at seduction when she at first misinterprets his intentions in chaining her up — who wouldn’t get the wrong idea? — but he’s on fire only with a Bible-fueled desire to help her go straight, in an all-encompassing-love-for-humanity way. She eventually relents, naturally, but, heh, it’s hard out there for the town tramp. The actorly tête-à-tête Jackson and Ricci dance as they navigate this strange new friendship is fascinating to behold. And Brewer is smart enough as a filmmaker to spin all sorts of jazzy riffs on his tale — the title comes from a 1927 blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson about watching your life go to hell, and the film is, on the whole, rather like a twangy, sad blues song itself.
It’s almost enough to make you forget — almost — that Black Snake Moan is just one more instance of Mismatched Couple Meet Cute and Teach Each Other the True Meaning of Christmas. So to speak. Unfortunately, it’s not so hard out there for the audience to remember that we’ve seen these same story, at its core, too many times before to be genuinely surprised by it anymore.