Ugh. This, the follow-up to white writer/director Craig Brewster’s Hustle and Flow, which I had the pleasure of not seeing, promised to be CONTROVERSIAL and RACIALLY PROVOCATIVE. It tries hard to be both, but ends up being neither as it’s just another version of the old “magical negro” thing about how only blacks are truly centered and know the right way to live and are perfectly spiritually-balanced, while whites are all messed-up and need blacks’ help to sort out their lives. It also seems to be aiming for a kind of indie, out of the ordinary vibe, but turns out to be terribly mainstream and bland as Cream of Wheat.
We begin with a black and white documentary segment with Son House explaining what the essence of the blues is, and how it’s always between a man and a woman, with one of them deceiving the other. This, and its later reappearance later in the film, comes off as a strain for credibility. We then cut to Christina Ricci as Rae and Justin Timberlake as Ronnie screwing, then find that he’s returning to the military the next day. In the morning he vomits in a toilet, she consoles him, and he gets a ride with his friend to wherever he has to be dropped off. Rae falls down to the grass and a fever seems to come over her, growing in intensity, until suddenly we cut to her getting screwed in a bathroom by a black man. She looks up and sees her face in the mirror—then uses her hand to cover up her reflection. When this happens a little title with an arrow pointing to her hand pops up and says “Get it? She cant stand to see herself like this!”
Now we shift our attention to Samuel Jackson as Lazarus. Yeah, that’s right: LAZARUS [Lazarus was theguy resurrected by Jesus]. He is being counseled by his priest buddy before he goes in to meet with his wife, who is divorcing him. She found another man, and aborted Lazarus’ baby, and is leaving. She complains about the heat in his old house, how it was always cold, but he says his old radiator works fine. This takes on additional significance because we all know that Lazarus chains Rae to his radiator soon enough. She then says she’s not ready to get old, and felt like she had “one foot in the grave” living with him. He tells her she truly bled him dry and left him all worn out and dessicated by the side of the road. Ain’t it the truth, lord, ain’t it the truth. We find out soon enough that 1) Lazarus used to be an accomplished local blues musician, but hasn’t played publicly in some time, and 2) it was his own brother who his wife is running off with. He takes out his guitar at home and plays the blues privately to ease his pain.
Meanwhile Rae goes out, takes a bunch of various pills, gets screwed up, and eventually fucked by some guy in a field with his friends playing football at night a few yards away. She is picked up by Ronnie’s friend, who soon makes to rape her. She tells him he’ll go to hell, at which point he beats her to unconsciousness, then gets worried she might be dead, and dumps her out on the side of the road. The next morning Lazarus finds her there, and takes her home. One might think the first thing he might want to do is call the police, but he later explains that he fears that racist assumptions will be made about him and a battered white woman. He finds people who knew her, and learns that she was known to have sex with anything that moved.
Rae spends a few days passed out, during which she writhes on the floor like a moaning, wanton demon—you just have to accept that she’s a nymphomaniac—and freaks Lazarus out. At one point she says something his ex-wife had also said—and we have a special flashback to his wife just to make sure all the remedial readers in the audience get it. He finds he wandering in a cornfield, and decides to chain her to his radiator. She becomes conscious a few days later, freaks about being chained, tries to escape, offers sex to Lazarus, and finally gives up. He explains that she needs to “get right,” and make a break from her old ways, and he is going to force her to do that. He consistently refuses all the sex she offers.
SPOILERS > > >
So Rae essentially accepts from the start that she does indeed need to fix up her life. Soon after, she is feeling all horny, but wraps the chain all around herself and apparently calms her feelings that way. Later a delivery boy comes by, and Rae resists at first, but finally gives in and jumps on him. Then Lazarus’ preacher friend comes by, and at first Lazarus holds a gun on him and tells him to go away, then lets him in to talk to Rae. She opens up to him. Now, all of this has been going on, for the first two-thirds of the film, and I thought we were talking about a time period of at least a month. Especially given all the healing Rae has done and how far she’s come from where she was, but no—it’s only been a week! Which makes me think… this movie is bullshit.
Then, guess what? All of a sudden Ronnie is home, discharged because of his panic attacks. The first person he runs into is the best friend, who beat Rae unconscious and left her by the side of the road, which is the last time she was seen… so I was fairly sure he must assume that he killed her. The friend is pretty casual, and once more we have content aimed at first-grade readers when Ronnie says he can’t find Rae and asks his friend “You’d tell me if you knew something, wouldn’t you?” Watch out folks, there’s a narrative sledgehammer aimed for your head!
Then Rae enjoys a simple home-cooked dinner, featuring spirit-nourishing soul food, and she eats happily as she enjoys an atmosphere of piety and respect. Meanwhile, Ronnie’s friend finally comes out and tells him that he fucked her, and that she was fucking the whole town, and they have a big fight. And Rae has been having these flashes of violence, of someone [out of focus] coming to her, presumably for sex, and for a LONG time I read it as we were to understand that the person she’s really afraid of is Ronnie. Especially later when she repeatedly looks toward the door, afraid someone is going to come in, and the person who ends up finally coming in… is Ronnie. Part of this happens when Rae asks Lazarus to play the blues for her, and he puts the painful story of his wife’s infidelity and her abortion into music [I would LOVE for a blues musician’s assessment of Jackson’s blues performance—IF it is him], while the groaningly obvious thunder and lightning claps outside! Rae lies at Lazarus’ feet, and soon cowers beneath him, holding to his knee through the storm and her painful memories.
So then Lazarus takes Rae to town, where she’s going to try to make nice with this woman we saw earlier—who turns out to be her mother. You’re looking at the actress and you’re like “Hmmmm, it’s not Laura Dern… It’s not Helen Hunt…” but you’ll never guess: It’s Kim Richards! One of the original Witch Mountain kids! Not to mention one of the Devil Dog kids…. Oooooooh, YEAH. Devil-dog-Devil-DAWG! Anyway, what’s more, she’s quite good! Rae has come to make nice, only mom justly assumes she must want money, since that’s all she ever wanted before. Then Rae says “I just think you should have kept him off me, is all,” which is only the second reference we’ve had that her father/stepfather raped her—which is fine, but not enough to overcome all the film-language implications that it’s Ronnie she’s imagining coming after her—and they have a big physical fight in the supermarket. Then the kindly black pharmacist Lazarus has been flirting with sees him carrying Rae out and assumes the worst. Then Lazarus decides that he’s ready to play the blues publicly again, and he takes Rae out and sings, while she dirty dances with several men in the crowd. But, we are to understand, that’s just good, wholesome dirty dancing and has nothing to do with her getting into sexual trouble like before. I was fast-forwarding through the part where Lazarus teaches Rae to sing, then—there’s Ronnie in the house! With a gun! But we are to understand that all Rae’s visions of some threatening man breaking into the house were NOT Ronnie. Got that? Good.
I’ll bet you know what happens. Lazarus stands down Ronnie [who we know is a coward, anyway] with the old “You have a gun, does that make you a man?” routine. Then Lazarus sits them both on the couch and we have some high-stakes therapy as they both reveal their innermost feelings, and we find out that Rae wants to be with Ronnie, which was the first time it occurred to me that he is NOT the one she is secretly terrified of. He wants to be with her, too, and then—they get married! Ronnie ties a golden chain around her waist, essentially taking ownership of her. And Angie the pharmacist fixes Rae up, and we see that she and Lazarus are going to be a beautiful couple now.
The movie ends with a nice little coda, with Rae and Ronnie driving off, and him getting boxed in by the mean truckers [I didn’t mention them, but they were there earlier], and him having a panic attack, and Rae having her own problems, until she pulls on the golden chain and we see it symbolically pull taut on Lazarus’ radiator, her now-internalized fount of strength. It’s a little obvious, but I’ll let this one slide.
< < < SPOILERS END
Ugh. I had really hoped for more. But let’s start with the good. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good, and really acts, it’s not the vain or self-conscious performance of a music star in a movie. Samuel Jackson is good, but I couldn’t help but notice things like that he’s not inhaling his smoke, and his pronunciation of certain key words—like “Ax” for “Ask”—stand out amidst the rest of his otherwise perfect diction. The real surprise was Christina Ricci, who has always been good, but is reaching Academy Award levels now. In fact, she should have been nominated for this. One thing I have to say throughout is that she vanished into her character so completely that I forgot it was her. Compare this with Reese Witherspoon playing a similar character in Freeway, where she was excellent, but you never forgot it was Reese Witherspoon playing white trash. We wish you continued success, Christina! Now eat a steak sandwich with extra mayo, girl, you are too skinny!
The problem is the writing. It is writing-workshop, surprise-free, “good” writing. What it’s not is inspired in any way. You have really obvious touches like Rae covering her reflection in the mirror or Ronnie telling his friend “You’d tell me if you knew anything, right?” and for me they wore heavily on the film. And worst of all is that beneath all the trappings of being a provocative piece that is going to venture into sensitive race-relations material, what we ultimately get is another version of the “Magical Negro” cliché narrative, in which a black person saves a white person because blacks are so much more spiritual and centered and down-to-earth and warm and unguarded and open and welcoming. And whites are out there doing drugs and being sex addicts and allowing their husband to molest their daughters and thinking guns make them men. You might argue that Lazarus [and PLEASE, let’s lose the second-grade symbolism name] has problems as well, but all of his problems are life circumstance problems, whereas all Rae’s problems are SPIRITUAL SICKNESS problems. This is not to say that the whites-save-blacks narrative doesn’t exist—look no further than The Blind Side—I’m saying ANY of these reductive clichés aren’t helpful.
So to me this movie is just a giant load of bullshit, and it’s too bad, because there’s a really good story in there, and good characters, if Brewer wasn’t pitching his writing to those with a third-grade reading level. I was surprised to see fairly smart critics of other publications were as a whole completely taken in. The only complaint about it from users on IMDb is that the marketing didn’t match the movie, and it’s true, the trailer and posters [and even the DVD menu] have this exploitation film, pulp feel, which the movie makes feints toward at certain times [and they fall flat, not being attached to anything larger]. The movie also has a powder keg of provocative material—black man has scantily-clad sexy white bombshell chained to radiator—which it resolutely refused to do anything meaningful with. But the real bamboozle is that this is kind of a slightly indie, anything-goes movie that isn’t going to follow all the usual rules… but truth be told, this is quite, quite mainstream in every respect. I certainly won’t be watching Hustle & Flow.
There are worse things, and this has a wonderful performance by Ricci. There are, however, also better things, too.