In the music business, they say you have your whole life to write your first album ... and six months to write the second. The same goes for film -- after an incendiary feature film debut at Sundance in 2005 with Hustle and Flow, writer-director Craig Brewer returns to the big screen with Black Snake Moan. Like Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan has an incredibly simple pitch -- "An older African-American bluesman helps a young white woman deal with her nymphomania. ..." -- and, like Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan is about a lot more than what it seems to be about. And yet, Black Snake Moan is a lesser film than Hustle and Flow. It's not that Black Snake Moan is provocatively salacious, but rather that it's poorly structured.
Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson, looking old and beaten with a mouthful of low-cost dental work) has had better days. His marriage has fallen apart thanks to his wife's affair. He used to play the blues, but now he works a small field in Tennessee and earns spending money from his sales at a local market. Rae (Christina Ricci, whose hair, makeup, wardrobe and demeanor suggest someone on Brewer's production team has seen Elia Kazan's 1956 Southern-sex trash-classic Baby Doll one too many times) is very much in love with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), but when he leaves to participate in the training for his National Guard posting, Rae's alone. And Rae's not good at being alone. When Ronnie leaves down the driveway, Rae runs after his ride until she collapses in a heap ... and Brewer quick-cuts to Rae bent over a hotel room sink, being used by another man, her hot breath fogging the mirror as she shudders and bucks. Ronnie's been gone for maybe....an hour.
After a backwoods party where booze and pills are the order of the night (and Brewer delivers one ace shot here, as the warm, summertime tones of a party shift to cool, clammy blue as the drugs take hold), Rae is abandoned, half-naked and battered, unconscious at the side of the road. Lazarus finds her. Lazarus takes her in. Soon, Lazarus gets a grip on Rae's issues -- primarily because of how desperately she tries to get a grip on him. Lazarus actually chains Rae to a radiator so she cannot leave his house and literally fuck any man who crosses her path. And they talk a little. About life. And about the blues.
Much as Hustle and Flow moved and grooved with the beats of hip-hop, Black Snake Moan dips and shakes with the rhythms of the blues. It even opens with a clip of legendary bluesman Son House explaining the medium: "Ain't but one form of the blues ... Two people supposed to be in love and one or the other deceives the other. ..." And the film's musical rhythms work with the feel of the movie -- gutbucket blues churning over the sight of front yards festooned with weeds and won't-run cars. But movies aren't just feel -- and in Black Snake Moan, you get a great demonstration of how structure and timing can make the difference in terms of a film's success or failure. The problem with Black Snake Moan isn't the incendiary nature of the material -- after the playschool platitudes of end-of-year limpidly liberal industrial-Hollywood productions like The Pursuit of Happyness and Bobby, I want to see an incendiary movie about race, sex and class in America, a movie that actually talks about those things and the things we think and feel but never speak or question.
The problem is simply one of time structure: The amount of time Lazarus ministers to Rae is just too short for her victory over her self (or rather, in fact, over her past) to mean anything. Hustle and Flow stuck with audiences, in part, because we watched Terrence Howard's Djay transform over a period of days and weeks from pimp to rapper and, more importantly, from amoral man to moral man. In Black Snake Moan, Lazarus and Rae (two names apparently on loan from a Symbology 101 course, but never mind) work through her problems in one long afternoon. During Lazarus's unconventional program of therapy, his preacher friend R.L. (John Cothran) drops by and is scandalized by the sight of Rae in bonds -- and legitimately fearful of what might happen if Lazarus and Rae's private interaction became public knowledge: "Why is there a half-naked white woman chained up in your house?" You could ask the same of Brewer -- why is there a half-naked white woman chained up in a black man's house if you're not going to use that to talk about race and sex, if you're not going to show us a real journey for these characters, if you're not going to give Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson bigger acting challenges than nudity and bad wigs?
Black Snake Moan isn't a bad film; it's just not as well-conceived and well-structured as Hustle and Flow. There are half-formed hints of the movie Black Snake Moan might have been all through the film, but Brewer's elements of race and music and lust ... just remain elements. Even if you'd never seen Hustle and Flow (and, frankly, if you haven't, you should), you'd probably consider Black Snake Moan more striking than successful -- a film where the lead actress is literally wrapped in forty pounds of metaphor, and where lifetimes of abuse, addiction and regret can be cleared up over the course of less than a week with some moonshine and home cooking and 12-bar riffs.