Good Letters

Hustle and FlowMaybe the only way to make films set in places that people have too precise an idea about is to indulge that idea, make it even more precise, to the point where it becomes a caricature of itself. In other words, go ahead and give them what they expect, so that something larger and more important can be said. At times, the only way to transcend the common milieu is to be totally immersed in it.

Craig Brewer, whose masterful first film Hustle and Flow took years to find its way to the screen, grew up in Memphis and knows the Mississippi Delta. Better still, he knows what people think of the area. His follow-up, Black Snake Moan, consists of sweat-soaked, blues tortured, Jesus and the Devil, whisky-and-smoke gutter trash slopping through a steamy existence in the red dirt.

In a way, the cliché of the environment is necessarily overwrought, so that it can become a backdrop to an outsized tale. A story like this–in which a tormented, Gospel-tied black man chains a slut to a radiator in order to cure her nymphomania–is parabolic in proportions, and would overrun any setting but the most extreme. But as it is, complimented by the hard, hot living that swirls about the characters like a bluesman’s field holler, the real purpose of such outlandish measures has a chance to make its point. And there is a point, though it is often as lost on positive reviewers of the film as it on its detractors.

When the typically-named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), whose wife has left him for his own brother, finds the typically-foul Rae (Christina Ricci), beaten and mostly naked outside his farmhouse, he brings her inside to nurse. Laz had been a musician at one time, but now exists in a sour purposelessness that even his old preacher friend cannot help him shake. In rescuing the girl, Laz feels she’s been placed “in his way,” something meant for him to save. His “cure” for the wretched Rae–holding her captive against herself–is also meant to excise the demon of his wife’s betrayal, and to pull the black snake from his sad, worn-down soul. (Is there such a thing as quadruple entendre? The snake metaphor goes a long way here.) In the process, Laz learns something about chains.

There are a few nods to racial tension that Brewer could’ve resisted. And the genesis of Rae’s problems is no big news; it would’ve been better if left less clear. Laz didn’t need a love interest either, which he gets. And finally, some scenes seem inconsistent: a blues “orgy” comes at an odd time in the film, and is too monumental to have so little a consequence.

But underneath all of this heat are pitiful souls capable of great majesty towards one another. Rae bears a curse, which she actually sees as such, and writhes in helpless resistance whenever she’s stricken with the itch (Ricci is fantastic here). And yet the wonder within her is that she can cure her beloved Ronnie–an enlisted man whose departure sets her on a spree–of his debilitating panic attacks. There is nothing so tender as when Rae uses the bare body with which she has slaked her own thirst as a blanket for Ronnie whenever he is convulsed by fear. For his part, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake; who knew?) is more boy than man; but the kindest thing he can do for Rae is to shatter so completely before her–giving her a chance to heal him with pure love. The lights of these people are few, but when they shine, they do so for each other.

You’d think they were bad: chains, that is. What’s nice is that they become the only thing that holds these people down. In the end, they learn that they must attach themselves to that which is larger than their strickenness. It seems clear that although no one is cured, they learn how to manage, and perhaps to overcome. The solid deity of the radiator stands gravely in the house; to it they hold, clutch, and bind one another in an embrace stronger than the collective sorrow they have authored.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: A.G. Harmon

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

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