If writer/director Craig Brewer were a member of the X-Men, he would be called "FirstActo," and his mutant power would be creating dynamic openings to movies. His enemy would be consistency.
Rae (Christina Ricci) is a nymphomaniac stuck in a small, derelict Tennessee town. The love of her life (Justin Timberlake) is leaving for military duty, leaving little reason for her to suppress her itch. Tearing off on wild nights of sex, drugs, and booze, Rae ends up violently attacked and left on the side of a dirt road. Coming to her aid is Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues dynamo who is embroiled in a divorce and a bout of depression. Sensing Rae needs some kind of salvation; Lazarus chains the young woman to his radiator and won't let her leave until her problems are dealt with.
Brewer shot onto the scene in 2005 with "Hustle & Flow," his ode to the accomplishments of a pimp and drug dealer who ached for a career in rap. It was a motion picture with an incredible opening act; Brewer expertly invoked a humid, unsettling portrait of a life tethered to the ground and the struggles of the artistic process. Once crucial elements were established, Brewer didn't know where to take the story, and relied on clichéd acts of violence and hip-hop hooliganism to keep the tension buttressed. Unfortunately, "Flow" crumbled during its proudest moment.
"Black Snake Moan" contains an even more volatile subject matter. This is Brewer's ode to the blues; not the frothy jams of today, but the intensely heated, sexual riffs of yesteryear that drew blood with every note. The picture is a cocktail of compulsions colliding in explosive ways and how faith and communication can temper them; it's exploitation on the sunny side of the street.
The story returns Brewer to the sweat-filled realm of the south and, like "Hustle," it's remarkable how vivid a picture the director can paint. "Moan" ripples with a rich, oppressive atmosphere of sin, and for 45 minutes, the director gives the viewer a rumbling view of Rae's deviancy and Lazarus's frustration. It's exhilarating direction, setting up the story as a peephole free-for-all where women are chained, men speak with their fists, and the lurid details of a slippery Memphis blues performance burn as hot as red neon on a midsummer night.
Regrettably, these moments are the height of the madness and, once again, Brewer doesn't follow through with his promises. After a set-up that features Jackson in full irritation mode (his best acting face, if you ask me), Ricci rolling around in various stages of undress, and the general practice of sin and hellfire redemption, "Moan" soon trips on one little detail: Brewer falls in love with these characters.
Traditionally, interest in the welfare of the leads is a good thing; however, "Moan" is positioned as a ribald tale of borderline comedic seduction, not a master class on psychology. Once Lazarus and Rae get their equilibrium back, the picture deflates and loses all of its hot-blooded ill temper and allure. Basically, it zips up its pants, and with that goes the potential for danger that informed nearly the entire first act.
"Moan" skates on a fairly thin ice of absurdity, and for me, insanity was its best asset. Once the chain is broken, both literally and metaphorically, Brewer's invention snaps with it. "Black Snake Moan" transforms into convention, and for a story this ambitious, it seems a waste to feel Brewer go soft. Again, like "Hustle," your best bet is to enjoy the near-perfect first 45 minutes, then scoot right out of the theater to savor the flavor.
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