With her dark scowls and dour “Don’t tread on me” warning signals, Christina Ricci has carved a career out of playing Addams Family goths, angry drunks, rebellious social rejects, end-of-the-line junkies and hardened lesbian serial killers. In a chicken-fried horror called Black Snake Moan, she now emerges in yet another of her movie disguises, looking good and trashy with raccoon eyeliner and peroxided hair, in an XXL man’s shirt, denim hot pants and cowboy boots. The place: a Hollywood movie’s idea of the kind of back-of-the-swamp hick town in Tennessee that nobody in Tennessee has ever seen or heard of. The time: a week on the Dr. Pepper logo clock between now and death by Moon Pies. It’s a dismal and phony overdose of Southern cornpone.
Ms. Ricci is Rae, the skanky town slut who has done the spread-eagle position for every man and boy from here to Chattanooga. She’s got her sights pinned on Ronnie (yes, that Justin Timberlake!), a lost redneck soldier with a nervous stomach who throws up all the time. But when Ronnie gets shipped off to boot camp, zonked-out Rae goes on a sex binge at the local honky-tonk and ends up drunk, doped to the gills, raped, beaten unconscious and left for dead on the side of the road. Enter Lazarus, played like Uncle Remus by the traditionally militant Samuel L. Jackson.
Lazarus is a Bible-reading, God-fearing old birddog, bitter and broken from a cheating wife and a shattered marriage, and filled with contempt for women of any age and color. Lazarus isn’t sure what to do with the half-naked sick sister he’s rescued from Hell, but believing she’s a gift from Heaven, he determines to cure her—first of her fever, then of her wicked ways. So he chains her to the radiator, clad only in panties and half of a breast-baring shred of a T-shirt, and forces her to listen to his blues compositions—a form of revenge-punishment he must have learned from the American jailers at Abu Ghraib. The title Black Snake Moan has nothing to do with black snakes, although there’s plenty of moanin’, hootin’, hollerin’, scratchin’ and cussin’ in this cotton-pickin’ possum jamboree. It’s the title of a song that Ol’ Lazarus sings down at Bojo’s Juke Joint, in a voice almost as corroded as Tom Waits’. “Calls me when I’m ailin’ / When Ah cain’t find mah home / Got no mama now / I calls it the Black Snake Moan.” Bring earplugs.
Lazarus never gets to know Rae in the Biblical sense, although she sends out a whole slew of crotch-rubbing invitations. Black Snake Moan is about how he frees himself from his own self-hatred when she unchains the shackles of her soul. But the movie, more or less written and most dubiously directed by Craig (Hustle and Flow) Brewer, a graduate of the kick-and-run school of dramatic art, never bothers to examine the scars from abuse that turn burned-out losers into born-dead boll weevils so early in life. The characters are illogical, their motivations only lazily explored in a turgid script that drones on endlessly but rarely rises above the psychology of Amos ’n’ Andy. If Ol’ Lazarus is so concerned with saving Rae from sin and disease, why does he ply her with rotgut whiskey in a Mason jar? It might be tolerable if anybody learned anything or improved their lives in any way, but in the end Rae is lifting her skirt again on the freeway to nowhere, Lazarus is still preachin’ the cracker-barrel Gospel According to Jack Daniels with a new common-law wife, and Ronnie is still puking his guts out. These are illiterate, joint-rollin’, snuff-spittin’, fly-swattin’, time-wastin’ hillbillies from Tobacco Road who betray, deceive, cheat and torture each other, and then stand up at each other’s weddings. Whatever did the actors see in this pig slop? While Mr. Jackson stands a chance of taking his lumps from the NAACP, it is really Ms. Ricci, bruised and writhing on the floor of a black roadhouse covered with scabs and bandages, that is something to see—and it’s pretty repellent. They both sport laughable Southern accents that are about as authentic as Jamaicans playing bagpipes.
Zodiac, the stark, terrifying and magnificently directed and researched crime thriller by noir Zen master David Fincher, covers the period in which the San Francisco Bay area was paralyzed with fear by the most satanic serial killer since Jack the Ripper. The Zodiac madman taunted the cops with threats, sent elaborately composed ciphers to the press in which his identity was hidden in secret codes, and even broadcast his voice on morning talk shows in interviews with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli. He claimed 13 victims, but dozens more are believed to be part of his midnight slaughters.
For nearly 20 years, the case consumed and changed the lives of a small army of law-enforcement officers and journalists, four of whom are the focus here: Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the geeky cartoonist from The San Francisco Chronicle who turned his obsession into a best-seller; Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the columnist whose frustration led to alcoholism and a ruined career; and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), two detectives who never gave up hopes of solving the case, even after the rest of the world threw in the towel. A great script by James Vanderbilt collates the clues, strategies, facts and theories, and catalogs the ways the Zodiac killer changed his patterns to confuse the cops, as well as the conflicting opinions of handwriting experts, the police incompetence, autopsy reports, anonymous tips and bureaucratic red tape that both helped and hindered the case. The most sinister suspect died of a heart attack in 1992, long after the bloody rampage that held Northern California captive abruptly stopped. The case was never closed, and the search goes on. Ask anybody in San Francisco and they’ll tell you that children still look under their beds at night before turning the lights out.
Zodiac is one of the darkest, creepiest and most tantalizing thrillers I have seen in years. It shows what a clever director and an intense writer can do with the kind of real-life horror-story madman that makes Dracula and the Wolf Man look like kindergarten cuties from “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” cartoons. It is the diametrical opposite of The Black Dahlia, another slab of unsolved California Grand Guignol that played like fiction from old Vault of Horror comic books; Zodiac is the real deal. I don’t know if Robert Graysmith, the author of two books that provided the archival data on which the movie is based, is as shy and dorky as he’s played here by Jake Gyllenhaal, but the actor makes him one of the most fascinating and relentless nerds in movie history. Mr. Downey’s portrait of Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s egotistical star crime reporter, takes you by surprise as his arrogance downloads doom. Director Fincher provides so much ominous ambiance that you actually share the helpless panic of the victims in alleys, cabs and lovers’ lanes as fate moves in with stealthy fingers. This is the grim reaper who directed the unsettling serial-killer epic Seven, so he’s been down this depraved highway before and knows all the signs. Zodiac runs nearly two hours and 40 minutes, which is usually an hour more than my chiropractor allows. Miraculously, you will never be bored.
At the movies, it looks like lesbians are the new golden retrievers. In life, they are powerful and free and everywhere. In the movies, they keep popping up in one labored, unfunny “comedy” after another: cuddly, housebroken and begging for the acceptance and equality that are already regarded as no-brainers by a civilized audience. Gray Matters is another coming-out flop that combines passé elements of the TV shows Ellen and The L-Word with recent and already forgotten indie-prods like Puccini for Beginners. The gimmick here is that a tightly knit brother and sister who live together in such co-dependence that they sing Fred and Ginger tunes, finish each other’s sentences and share the same toothbrush face an insurmountable sibling crisis when they fall in love with the same girl. Gray (Heather Graham) is a beautiful advertising copywriter totally confused by her benign sexual confusion (Heather Graham, lacking in self-confidence?), while her brother Sam (Thomas Cavanagh, from the defunct TV series Ed) is doing his residency at Mt. Sinai, specializing in heart transplants. He’s perky, attractive and clueless in the ways of the world: Otherwise, he’d notice that Gray has no interest in any gender other than her own. How do they make up people this naïve? (His favorite movie is Free Willy!)
One day in the park, they meet a sexy zoologist named Charlie (Bridget Moynahan). Sam falls fast when she declares a passion for hot-fudge sundaes. But Gray develops an equally hot-wired spark for Charlie and tries to kill her interest in Sam. “He snores and has a hairy back,” she warns. Charlie is undeterred. She works with animals, remember? They decide to fly to Las Vegas and get married in six days. It is typical of this movie’s endlessly absurd contrivances that Gray and Charlie take a bath in the same tub, get drunk on champagne, and climb onstage to sing “I Will Survive” with guest star Gloria Gaynor. This all happens in the first few minutes, and there’s a whole 92-minute movie to go. By the time Gray and Charlie fall in bed and lock lips, you pretty much know where this dour, poker-faced farce is heading. Believe me, there is no reason to stick around and find out.
Too old to play ingénues, too young to play mothers and too tired of playing whores, the lovely and capable Ms. Graham seems content just to take whatever jobs come along. She is criminally wasted here. Mr. Cavanagh has an easy, grinning charm, but he lacks the experience and charisma to carry a leading role as the only meat in a girl-to-girl sandwich. He’s also been directed by Sue Kramer (who also wrote the tedious screenplay) to mumble so fast that he swallows whole sentences at a time. Worse still, there is the challenging spectacle of watching the pathetically miscast Alan Cumming in the irrelevant role of a randy heterosexual Scottish cab driver who accompanies Gray to her first gay bar in drag. I don’t know what to say about the tragic walk-on support of the great Sissy Spacek as a screwball psychiatrist who dispenses therapy to her patients in bowling alleys and on rock-climbing expeditions. She seems so embarrassed to sink this low that she actually looks like she’s trying to hide her face from the camera to conceal her misery. She needn’t have bothered. We understand why she’s blushing.