In a way, "Black Snake Moan," the new film from the director of "Hustle and Flow," is as wild as its premise might lead one to believe.
In the deep, rural south an aging, recently-divorced bluesman named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds Rae, a beaten, half-naked young woman (Christina Ricci,) lying along the side of the road. He takes her into his home and makes it his mission to nurse her back to health. When going into town to get medicine and inquire about who she is he makes a discovery: to used sanitized terms, she's the town's "loose woman." Thus, when he gets back to his house he decides, quite sensibly and rationally, to chain her to his radiator and refuse to let her go until he "gets the devil out of her."
Yes, wild, wild stuff.
Unfortunately it's wild in not the most positive of senses. It's a wild, crazy mess of a movie, packed with wildly different tones, elements, characters, and poorly-stitched narrative threads. What we've got is a whole lot of pieces and scenes - some that intrigue and impress - that fail to really come together very well.
That said, there's certainly plenty to enjoy in the picture. As far as the main characters go the film is quite strong - Jackson and Ricci are two of modern cinema's most talented, engaging, gifted actors. And both have starred in their share of so-so films. Never - and I'm saying never -- have they been responsible for the film's mediocrity. Quite the opposite - they're usually able to shine in spite of a movie's limitations. They certainly do here.
Jackson allegedly said that he thought this was his best performance. That's a difficult claim to assess since it's difficult to isolate his work in the film and judge it independent of everything else. It's easy to point to his work in "Jackie Brown" and "Pulp Fiction" as amazing performances because the other elements of those films conform to his level of perfection.
The other strong actor in the picture is the music - which is practically a supporting character. Writer/director Craig Brewer's previous film won an Oscar for its music. It's pretty clear at this point that regardless of his movies' quality the soundtrack is certainly worth a listen, maybe even a purchase - and I'm generally not the biggest fan of the blues.
But back to the film itself, we find such a strange, difficult blending of elements. The premise makes it sound like a comedy - and much of it is. There's also a hot sexiness to the film - courtesy of Ricci being in her underwear for most of it. Then you've got these strong musical interludes. But there's also a darkness and a sadness as well. There's certainly a reason that Rae is so promiscuous. Also thrown in to further muddy the narrative are about a half dozen supporting characters including Rae's boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) who's a Marine shipping out to, presumably, Iraq. All these elements make for a film that's difficult to grasp. In some cases that's a good thing for a film to be; a film can push or challenge you and leave you contemplating it for days. That's not generally the situation, though, with films like "Black Snake Moan" that are such a mess. It's one thing to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that has a sense of logic to it, it's another to try and piece together a film that does not have an overriding, sensible structure. It's like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle that's been poured into a blender.
With "Black Snake Moan" what really cemented this troubled opinion of it was the cinematic experience generated by the difficult, conflicting narrative. Simply, if I'm reviewing a film as I'm watching it, that's generally a very bad thing. When I'm watching a film my consciousness is not supposed to be in the driver's seat. I'm the passenger, take me where you want to take me. I should not have the kind of drunken driver of "Black Snake Moan." If I'm watching a film and I'm not sucked in, if I'm not absorbed, that's a very serious problem. I'm supposed to review the experience of the film afterward, not during.
And unfortunately that's the effect of the film's wildness. It's such a bumpy ride that it's a challenge to try and sit back and enjoy the strengths that it does have. I can only hope that a second viewing some day down the road will be more effective.