Friday, 1 June 2007

Black Snake Moan (2007)

What do you do with a girl who's all chained up?

Craig Brewer appears to build his career by making movies with horrendously offensive premises that turn out to be compelling watches. Take for example his last film, Hustle & Flow, where an honest hardworking pimp rediscovers his rapping talent to become a chart-topper with a single titled "It's hard out there for a pimp". How hard can it really get, living off women? How many different groups of people could one possibly offend by making a rags to riches movie about a black pimp who sings about being a pimp, as opposed to other black rappers who sing about being pimps and gangsters while really hailing from middle-class backgrounds? As it turns out, once you get pass the offensiveness of it premise, Hustle & Flow was saved through the director's reworking of James Toback's Fingers as well as the honest acting of Terence Howard.

For his latest film, Brewer decides to make a movie about a nymphomaniac who gets beaten into a coma and wakes up days later finding herself chained to the radiator in the home of a depressed divorcee in the deep rural South. If that doesn't spark off your exploitation film alarms, perhaps this should do the trick: well familiar with the reputation of Rae (Christina Ricci) as the town tramp, Lazarus believes that it is his God-given duty to cure the wayward girl, using the Holy Bible, a 40-pound chain, and incarceration to effect her moral redemption! There's nothing like as offensive as an old fashioned melodrama about a member of the religious order forcibly bringing civilisation and morality to lusty females of another race, but as audiences will discover, it is funnier when the races are reversed. Given the brilliant race reversal, and infinitely funnier when Brewer decides to stunt cast Christina Ricci (who has parodied Britney Spears and the Olsen Twits on comedy skits before) as the nymphomaniac and Samuel L Jackson as her God-fearing, blues-singing captor.

The wicked humour arising from the role reversal of the colonial, civilising process is milked for what it's worth, but unlike Hustle & Flow, either the premise or its execution still isn't strong enough to sustain a feature film. I've seen quite a number of comedies with far less provocative premises fall apart after the first act, but the strange thing about Black Snake Moan is that it remains a compelling watch even after it moves beyond its setup. Part of its charm lie in the excellent blues soundtrack (Samuel L Jackson performs everything himself!), as well as the uncanny chemistry between Jackson and Ricci. More important, however, is the skilful manner in which Brewer pulls the rug from under our feet - Black Snake Moan is one of the few films where I could never tell, after its first act, how the movie would go, or even end. Even though we understand from the beginning that the comic education and redemption of the town tramp will have to be counterbalanced by the sweeter and sincere redemption of the captor, we have no idea how it will work out.

It is entirely to Brewer's credit that the rest of the movie is as unexpected and open as possible (without being incoherent), right down to the very end, and is the best redemption for a deliberately offensive comedy. Black Snake Moan is one of those few subversive comedies that deserve to be watched at least once by everyone.

First published at incinemas on 7 June 2007

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