Black Snake Moan (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Black Snake Moan is designed to look and sound like a B-grade exploitation flick. It opens with a hot sex scene followed shortly thereafter by the sight of a girl writhing on the ground in apparent sexual frustration. Later, there's booze and blues and black-and-blue marks. There's a (white) girl in chains and a (black) man holding the key. The film pushes more buttons than an elevator operator but, in the end, Black Snake Moan works to turn expectations upside down. The movie has things to say about race and religion and the pain of loneliness, and it does so with considerable offbeat wit. It introduces three broken people and shows how a little understanding can salve wounds, if not completely heal them.

Rae (Christina Ricci) is a bad girl with an ugly past. She has been saved from herself by Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), a guy with issues of his own. But Ronnie is leaving - despite pleas from his girlfriend, he has decided to join the army as the first step on a path to his future. His departure wrecks Rae and, less than a day after Ronnie is gone, she has slipped back into her old ways of promiscuity and drugs. After being used and abused, she is unceremoniously dropped onto the side of a lonely stretch of rural road. There she lies until the next morning, when she is discovered by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), an aging ex-blues guitarist whose own life is in tatters. His wife has left him and all he has left are the vegetables he grows in his garden. He takes Rae in and nurses her back to health. He gives her cough syrup, an ice bath to break her fever, and petroleum jelly for her scrapes and wounds. He also gives her a 40 pound chain to keep her from running away. It is his mission to teach her to mend her wicked ways. Things don't work out as either of them plan.

It should come as no surprise that Black Snake Moan is about the resurrection of Lazarus. In fact, not only does he come back to life, but so does Rae. Looking at the film from a very high level, it has a familiar theme: that of two mismatched people finding each other and, through their interaction, courting redemption. But writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) doesn't treat this in an ordinary way. His approach is audacious, to say the least, and every time the movie appears to be headed into familiar territory, Brewer twists it, sometimes violently. There is, for example, no romantic relationship between Rae and Lazarus. Initially, Rae tries to seduce him (doing some rather interesting things with one of her feet), but he resists and she eventually stops. Their interaction, while not exactly father/daughter, is platonic. There is also a gut wrenching confrontation between Rae and her mother that is not followed with a "happily ever after" scene.

As is often the case with ambitious approaches to familiar material, Brewer missteps occasionally. Ronnie's character is left half-developed. There are times when Rae treads close to the edge of being a caricature. And many of the secondary characters are uninteresting at best. (An exception: John Cothran Jr. as a preacher.) Yet Brewer gets the most important things right. We end up caring about Rae and Lazarus and what happens to them. The best scene of the film focuses on them together while apart. He is rediscovering life by playing the blues in front of a packed crowd and she is on the dance floor, moving her body to his rhythms. Rae is fully clothed in this scene, but it's the sexiest Black Snake Moan has to offer.

Ricci's performance is brave and effective - the most provocative in a career that has rejected Hollywood norms. Her diverse choice of roles has allowed her to make the transition from precocious child actor to mature adult performer, and Rae may be her riskiest portrayal to date. She lays it all on the line in Black Snake Moan, wedding physical and psychic nakedness in an example of riveting acting. Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, tones down his natural flamboyance. This is not the man who made profane demands in another Snake movie. This is a weary individual who has been beaten down by life. Jackson has played this sort of role before but it takes a film like Black Snake Moan to remind us that he's more than a comic book action hero. Justin Timberlake is okay, but he's not nearly as effective as in Alpha Dog.

Despite its tendency to go over-the-top, I found Black Snake Moan to be both engaging and moving. I cared about the characters and was interested in their circumstances. There's a lot of eye candy, too. Ricci spends most of the film either half naked or more than that, and it's plain that she did a lot of work on her body to prepare for this part. Brewer contributes some memorable images. Lazarus' blues concert is masterfully filmed and there's a wonderful shot near the beginning that shows Rae walking down a road toward the camera with a giant machine dwarfing her.

Brewer doesn't preach, but he says a lot, and he does it with flair and occasional bursts of twisted humor. The yin and yang of Rae and Lazarus' interaction makes statements about race and gender and how history informs the way we relate to each other today. There's a lot going on in the film's subtext and it becomes more obvious as the plot unfolds. In the end, however, one message is clear: regardless of race, sex, or class, we're all human, we're all screwed up, and we all have the potential to heal each other. The movie ends on a note that is simultaneously real and hopeful and does not in any way betray what has unfolded over the past two hours. This is a bold follow-up to Hustle and Flow. Would that more filmmakers and actors took these kinds of risks.

Black Snake Moan (United States, 2007)

Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake
Screenplay: Craig Brewer
Cinematography: Amy Vincent
Music: Scott Bomar
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sex, Nudity, Drugs, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1