Friday, November 6, 2009

A New Review of an Old Movie

One of the fringe benefits of these little trips to China is the availability of movies. It's hard not to stock up on everything you have even a remote interest in seeing, as the cost of acquisition here is less than even a rental cost back home (not that I would advocate the deliberate flouting of copyright law…)

Tonight's movie: Black Snake Moan. From director Craig Brewer (known for 2005's Hustle and Flow), this 2006 film tells of a couple tortured souls who find their redemption through an unlikely connection. Christina Ricci plays Rae, a young woman dealing with a lifetime of sexual abuse and exploitation. Her tortured past has left her fundamentally mis-wired for life, and she passes her days fighting against nightmarish memories and fretful anxiety which she compulsively attempts to quell sexually. This behavior (of course) has earned her the reputation as the town slut, with the men typically wanting her and condemning her for it. She has managed to keep herself in check in recent times with her boyfriend, Ronnie (played by Justin Timberlake), who values her as a person and treats her with respect and, not incidentally, is happy to give her a ready means of acting out her anxieties. But Ronnie suffers from panic attacks of his own, a condition which Rae recognizes and understands; and she has learned how to help Ronnie work through his debilitation.

And so the two of them interlock in a fortuitous way, each helping the other stand upright. But this delicate balance is disrupted when Ronnie enlists in the National Guard. His departure triggers extreme anxiety in both of them, and deprives them of the support network on which they each are completely reliant for normal functioning--with unfortunate consequences all around.

This is one of those movies where before watching it I found myself intrigued and rather shamed at my intrigue. The promotional material for the film shows Christina Ricci wearing next to nothing--a bare scrap of a t-shirt covering her breasts (well, mostly) and a little pair of white panties--and the previews show her writhing and moaning almost like a greazy porn flick. I assumed there was something more than this to the story, of course, but it seemed kind of unclean to have too much enthusiasm for it in advance. And from the perspective of middle-aged male lechery, the film doesn't much disappoint. The diminutive Ms. Ricci is indeed comely--if aggressively trashy--and she is paraded around on screen in a way that would be shamelessly gratuitous if her nymphomania were not an integral part of the story. Nor do I mean to make light of her difficulties; what seems at first blush to be pure titillation for the film's male viewers is in fact a debilitating condition which imperils her very existence. Hollywood license aside, this all seems truthful enough.

The real love story here is not between Rae and Ronnie but, unconventionally, between Rae and Lazarus (played by Samuel L. Jackson). I say unconventionally because they are not lovers and there is not a sexual element to their relationship. Lazarus finds Rae lying unconscious and bloody on the rural dirt road by his mailbox, the bad outcome of her ride home after last night's party. Lazarus takes her into his home and tries to nurse her back to health. When the combination of her personal demons and the cocktail of drugs and booze she consumed at the party make her quite unmanageable, Lazarus decides to chain her to his radiator so she can't just jump back into the life of debauchery for which she is so well known in the community. With Lazarus deeply bruised by the abrupt end of his own marriage, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to get Rae healthy.

Clearly the movie is not intended to be taken literally. Only a psychopath nutbag like James Dobson would advocate chaining someone to a radiator as the proper response to mental illness and physical and sexual abuse. But the chain is a metaphor for connection, a way of showing the isolated Rae that people care about her and about what becomes of her. I couldn't help but think a bit of marriage vows, a mechanism that keeps people from throwing in the towel and fleeing too quickly when their relationship hits a rocky patch; without weathering trying times together, it's difficult to forge a deep and meaningful bond. And so it is here. Lazarus means to do well by Rae, but her first reaction upon waking up from her drug haze is, naturally, to just flee. She revolts violently against the stricture, but Lazarus can see that she will not find peace and happiness unless she faces her demons. And with the passage of a little time--and the realization that Lazarus has no designs on her as she has come to expect of all men in life--she grows to respect him and to realize that he cares for her and means well despite his draconian measures. Lazarus realizes pretty quickly that it's not his place to live her life for her, but when he unchains her enough time has passed that she too realizes that a life without connection will lead to her destruction. And in this unconventional way she has found a true friend.

The story is shocking enough on the face of it, but it actually works surprisingly well, provided one doesn't keep reality's yardstick unnecessarily close. The underlying themes of the film are meaty enough, and the glimpse of an insular life in a small town gives the film a slightly exotic quality. The underlying question of race is also here, though it's not a star player. But it's a tension that also helps give the film some depth. There are wonderful performances all around, from the stars of course, but also in several of the smaller roles. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as the conflicted Ronnie, a man without confidence living a near-subsistence-level existence in the rural South. Also wonderful--surprisingly to me--is John Cothran Jr. as the pastor of Lazarus' local church. There's a strong chain between the pastor and Lazarus, a community chain, and Mr. Cothran brings a really wonderful humanity and warmth to his character. His preacher plays a vital and worthy role in the lives of these people, and he does so in a way that avoids most every cliche we might expect of a characterization of a black Southern preacher.

It all wraps up in the end in a way that's slightly unsatisfying, mostly because I think Brewer has touched upon a lot of stuff that needs more than two hours to play out. In that sense the conclusions feel a bit rushed, but not nearly enough to negate all the good work done along the way. I'm slightly surprised to recommend this one.

Grade: B+

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