Friday, June 14, 2013

Triple Feature/Southern Pulp

If you're subscribed to Netflix, and enjoy Southern pulp cinema, then there's a great triple feature awaiting consisting of The Gift (dir. Sam Raimi), Black Snake Moan (dir. Craig Brewer) and The Paperboy (Lee Daniels). All three are quite gritty, fully championing their R-ratings, but more importantly they each understand a  more important aspect of Southern gothic pulp: the freedom to embrace the colorful character. All of these films feature wild and strange people who seem like they're from another world. That's really what drives Southern fiction and makes it truly distinct. The twisty woods, swamps, and alligators are only interesting if the people around them are.

Of the lot, Black Snake Moan strikes me as the strongest, and also the most original. It actually has a story that truly feels like Southern goth, whereas The Paperboy and The Gift are simply murder mysteries that use style and character to earn their points. What I love about Black Snake Moan, and to an extent Brewer's first film, Hustle & Flow, is the way he rattles viewers' brains with new and unorthodox stories only to loop around and embrace convention by the end.   That said, there's definitely those who complain Black Snake Moan is too pulpy and weird, yet really it's quite soft when put up to something like The Paperboy.

Daniel's film disregards the sensitive moviegoer, relishing everything that everybody tends to hate about the deep south. The bright, burning sun, the muddy swamps, the mosquitoes, the gators (including the skinning of a dead one), and especially the type of people there who don't seem to care about the sticky atmosphere the same way they don't care much for the normal decent human being. Because of its daring venture into the belly of southern pulp, The Paperboy is quite fun to watch (albeit uncomfortable at times, especially during a brutal hotel scene and the jellyfish beach sequence which I imagine will grow in infamy with each passing year). There's not much by way of intelligence though, which is what keeps it from being a great piece of Southern fiction. The beautiful thing about great southern literature and film is that the swamp atmosphere in a way produces a tougher person who recognizes things in man that normal civilized folks don't quite understand. They may be cynical for it, but there's truth to be found there. The Paperboy ignores that and essentially takes a comic book approach. 

The initial point, though, is that Black Snake Moan, for all the strangeness of its initial premise, never comes close to being as dark or shocking as Daniel's film. Nor, for that matter, does Rami's psychic mystery The Gift, which with such a stupid story as it has really has no business being as good as it is. But it's a testament to Raimi's direction and Cate Blanchett's marvelous lead performance that the film works so well. What's interesting is that the script was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, who based Blanchett's character on his own mother, who apparently had psychic powers (her last name happened to be Faulkner, though as far as I can tell that's a mere coincidence). Thornton wisely uses the psychic element to throw Blanchett's character into the middle of a murder mystery. It's a shame it's such generic one, like an amalgam of second-rate John Grisham and Stephen King. Yet there are considerable merits besides Raimi's direction and Blanchett's acting. I mentioned a hallmark of Southern pulp was the use of lots of colorful characters. Thornton understands that, and he fills the movie with them. The rest of the cast includes Geovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hillary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Rosemary Harris, and J.K. Simmons. It's a lineup that mostly compensates for the stupid story, though I imagine Thornton might have made a good replacement of Reeves' character. 

I like these movies a lot. There's nothing particularly smart or transcendent about them, but they're very entertaining and at the same time have got real grit to them. There are better movies about the south, for sure, but those seeking this particular brand of southern pulp need go no further.

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