Black Snake Moan
Written and Directed by Craig Brewer

The new film (his third feature) from Craig Brewer, whose multi-Oscar-nominated Hustle and Flow put him on the cinematic map, is a satisfying and unexpected surprise. An unlikely combination of pulp-exploitation-masquerading-as-anthropology, like Babydoll or Tobacco Road, with an "odd-couple" story, laced with music and seasoned with romance, there are many reasons why this film shouldn't work - but it does. It works very well indeed.

Its success is partly due to a well-written screenplay - by the director - that is sincere and unapologetic, and manages to sell what might otherwise be reduced to cliché through its straightforward, unpretentious presentation. It's partly due to the well-drawn characters Brewer has created. And it is overwhelmingly due to the compelling performances Brewer gets from his actors - not only the clearly talented and accomplished Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, but even Justin Timberlake.

The film is many things, and skillful pacing and storytelling means that it never stands still long enough in any one of its identities to become ponderous or earnest. It is a film about redemption through faith and music, about how we learn lessons by trying to teach them, about the beautifully dangerous power of sexuality and its abuse and reclamation, and ultimately about the power of love to help us change our lives.

It is a film that communicates much more through the direct, visceral power of its images and events than through analysis or exposition. It doesn't always make sense from a literal point of view - but it is forthright about its refusal to play by standard narrative rules, confidant in the raw energy of the story and the performers to make a connection with and evoke a response from its audiences.

And that confidence is justified. Brewer shows real skill as a director in pacing the film so effectively, in counterbalancing sequences of reflective quiet against others of frenetic, dizzying activity. His use of music to underscore the issues with which his characters are dealing - both the lyrics of the songs and also their tone - ranging from unrestrained sensuality, to melancholy, to a delicate and childlike yearning, is also very effective. And the rhythms and contrasts of the musical subtext help keep the film rolling along.

His script is direct and clear. His use of southern vernacular - and his actor's embodiment of it - gives the film grit and texture. If the final few minutes are a bit contrived - trying to stitch together the varying trajectories of the personal interactions and connections that are at the heart of the film into some kind of "resolution" in the last act - at least he doesn't completely muck things up.

He leaves enough of a mixture of uncertainty and hope - of a sense of ongoing struggle - to allow his characters to keep most of their integrity and dignity intact. And the powerful slice of their lives that we've witnessed in the first hour and forty-five minutes gives ample justification for cutting the story and storytellers a significant amount of slack.

The story centers around a confused young woman, Rae (Ricci), who has compounded the wounds of childhood sexual abuse into an obsession that finds her trying to take power over her own life by internalizing and then orchestrating her own sexual exploitation. This self-destructive compulsion threatens the only sincere relationship she's been able to form, and leads her into a situation where she's brutally beaten and dumped by the side of a country road.

Embittered, aging subsistence farmer and retired Juke-joint bluesman Lazarus (Jackson) who has just been abandoned by his much younger wife in favor of his brother, finds Rae there, and sees in her something of his own self-destructive past and present disappointment. He takes her in to his home- initially to nurse her back to health, and eventually to try to help take positive control of her life and recognize the beauty and potential for love that he sees in her.

That this has an at least partly self-serving aspect, as a way of validating and affirming his own commitment to seek those same qualities in the world and in himself, simply adds a layer of bittersweet irony to the whole process. It's part of the challenging honesty of the screenplay that Brewer doesn't shrink from exposing this aspect of the relationship.

There's a subtle overlay of meanings here, as this "exploitation" film has at its core a study of aspects of the uses - both productive and destructive - of "exploitation." Rae "exploits" her own sexuality as a way toward gaining power over others and creating the illusion of connection. Lazarus "exploits" Rae's condition to both validate himself by helping her, and to learn some important things about himself through the interactions he and Rae create.

Brewer "exploits" the audiences' attraction to the pulp-themed poster and suggestive tag line: "everything's hotter down south," to lure them into an exploration of something deeper, more complicated, nuanced and delicate than the film's publicity would lead one to expect. The ways in which we "use" ourselves and each other to try to create order, meaning and connection in the world - this basic existential exploration - is one of the central themes of what masquerades as a superficial "genre" film.

His actors make a significant contribution to this effort. This becomes a kind of "chicken-and-egg" problem: did the actors summon up such powerful performances in response to Brewer's direction, or did his talent attract and cast such capable actors that all he need to do was keep out of their way?

In this case, it's probably a combination of both. Certainly both Freeman and Ricci have shown their ability to convincingly inhabit characters far from their own personalities. Both have created memorable characters in previous films. But the co-ordination of their two performances and the way they work together with the rest of the cast also shows an over-riding influence that manages to hold the whole project - as multi-faceted as it is - together.

Jackson plays against his usual type. Instead of the "savvy tough guy" as which he's been cast in recent years, here he plays a guy who is a long way from "wisdom," with plenty of problems of his own. He manages to imbue his rather muddle-headed, ambivalent character, an instinctive, empathetic personality who is pulled in several directions at once, with real "soul," a non-intellectual understanding of his own and others' suffering - as represented here by the blues - that broadens and deepens him - and ultimately allows him to move on in his life.

Ricci is still mining the vein of interesting, outsider, oddball characters she has brought to life starting as long ago as Wednesday Addams. But in this film she's moving in a new, more mature direction. She plays Rae with a rawness and conviction that overcomes what could have been stereotypical character elements - the "trailer-trash" upbringing, the early sexual abuse - to create a portrait of a badly-damaged but strong, appealing and salvageable young woman for whom an audience can hope. Her courage in taking on this role and her conviction in embodying the character are admirable, and the chances she takes are certainly justified by the finished product.

Other characters are also strong. Brewer uses character actors with broad experience in television, like S. Epatha Merkerson, as Lazarus' friend Angela, and John Cothran, Jr. as his preacher and co-conspirator R.L., to full effect, providing solid support for his leading players. He manages to get a solid performance out of Justin Timberlake, whose resume would not immediately suggest an ability to succeed in a role like the one he's called upon to play here.

Cinematographer Amy Vincent worked with Brewer on Hustle and Flow. It was her breakthrough film after nearly a decade of laboring in the indie trenches and another ten years working her way into the Cinematographer's chair by way of the sound and camera departments. Here she shows a real flair for shooting both action sequences and set-pieces. The way she and Brewer set up the shots has a lot to do with a persistent visual appeal that gives the film the originality and unpredictability that sets it apart.

The original music by Scott Bomar is mainly used to create transitions between the many well-known blues tunes that are the backbone of the score. Bomar's tropes on the basics flow comfortably into the traditional material, creating a coherent feel through the various shifts of tone. The way Brewer and Bomar have used music here - as more than "accompaniment," as a part of the "dialogue" that the film is having both internally and with its audience - is another aspect of Brewer's film-making that is both effective and highly individual.

The production values are uniformly solid. There's nothing overdone or "arty" about the sets and decoration - nothing looks like a "movie set." There's an appropriate grittiness to the overall look of the film.

Black Snake Moan is a film that defies categorization. Brewer's originality and vision work with the fine elements he has assembled here in script, cast and crew to produce a work that is provocative, disturbing and ultimately a very worthwhile piece of cinematic story-telling.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.