Rae (Christina Ricci) has two problems. Her soldier husband is being shipped out and she has an uncontrollable urge for sex. With Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) gone, she seeks out any and all companions, getting herself into real trouble. Badly beaten and left unconscious on the side of a deserted road, she is taken in by an old bluesman, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who sees it as his mission to save the young woman’s soul in “Black Snake Moan.”
Lazarus has a troubled life of his own when his wife of many years leaves him for another man. He is all alone and grieving when he discovers Rae lying unconscious on the road near his house. He nurses her back to health, cleaning up the cuts and bruises inflicted on her by Ronnie’s brother who is angered by her unfaithfulness. When she comes on to Laz, he realizes that her wounds aren’t just physical. He decides that some tough love is in order and tethers Rae, with a long, heavy chain, to a radiator. She balks at her involuntary detention but Lazarus turns a deaf ear to her complaints. Slowly, very slowly, he earns her trust and a close friendship begins.
Black Snake Moan” is a conventional yarn of salvation and redemption that benefits most from a daring, no holds barred performance by Christina Ricci. The young, but veteran, thesp puts it out there for all to see and pulls no punches as nymphomaniac Rae. Couple this striking perf with the always reliable Samuel L. Jackson and you get a film that is better than it should have been.
Director/writer Craig Brewer does a fine job eliciting superior performances by his leads. Lenser Amy Vincent‘s cameras caress Ricci, bathing the actress in soft hues, making her look beautiful despite Rae’s battered condition. The finished product isn’t as even as the helmer’s debut work, “Hustle & Flow,” but Christina and Samuel make this sophomore effort worth watching. The excellent blues music helps things, too.
The film buff in me was really curious to see Brewer’s second film effort but Ricci is the reason to stay. The young actress gets kudos for taking it to the edge. I give it a B.Laura:
Small town Southern farmer Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson, "Snakes on a Plane") is in a bad way after his younger wife runs off with his own brother. Troubled Rae (Christina Ricci, "Anything Else," "Monster") becomes unhinged when her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, "Alpha Dog") leaves for boot camp. After a night of drunken partying indulging in her nymphomania leaves Rae beaten and dumped on a dirt road, she's taken in by a shaken Lazarus, who works through his own rage by chaining the girl to his radiator to cure her sexual frenzy. Lazarus and Rae have crossed paths while their guts are singing the "Black Snake Moan."
Writer/director Craig Brewer follows up his fabulous "Hustle & Flow" with another down and dirty Memphis musical tale, but where his earlier work worked a cliche with fresh voice, his latest plays like Tennessee Williams gone drive-in. Funny, outrageous and a little all over the place, "Black Snake Moan" is pure southern sexploitation cut with equal measures of humor and heart. Christina Ricci just about eats the screen alive.
Brewer begins his film with vintage footage of 1930's blues legend Son House explaining that only a man or woman deceiving his or her lover can give birth to the blues. Rae begs Ronnie not to leave, then crawls through the earth after his departing pickup. Completely incapable of hanging on, she's determined to get wasted at an outdoor kegger where a drunken football game sporting a semi-nude Rae in tackle rutting in the field suggests her taking on of the whole team. It's Ronnie's presumed best friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James), looking on with lust and disgust, who says he'll take her home but instead beats her bloody and pushes her out of his truck.
The next day, Laz picks up the unconscious girl and tucks her in before heading into town for drugs and bandages. It's there that he finds out he's got a sexually precocious spitfire on his hands. She's barely come to when she's on him like a leech, but Laz will have none of that. The scars from his cheating wife will be healed by taming the tramp.
These initial scenes are outrageous, fueled by Ricci's fearless abandon as Rae. She spits and she curses and she runs out her lead like a rabid dog, jerking herself into the air and hanging onto Laz's front steps as he reels her back in. Of course, the whole idea of a black man chaining up a scantily clad white woman in the south still has lingering overtones as Laz's pal, Reverend R. L. (John Cothran Jr., "The Cell") is quick to point out. After one major slip up, when Rae, left alone, is quick to deflower the young man who helps Laz sow his seeds, Lazarus decides to dress the girl up and let her choose her own path. Soon the foursome are dining together, Lazarus's trust making Rae determined to become good. After loudly and physically demanding her mother's explanation for the abuse she suffered at her stepfather's hands, Rae and Laz spend the night out shimmying and strumming at the local juke joint, where they're spied through a peephole by the prematurely returned Ronnie, already furious at the tales told by buddy Gill.
In a nice touch, Brewer hews Ronnie as a damaged soul too - apart from Rae the anxiety attacks he suffers cannot be soothed and after the initial misunderstanding Laz gets the couple counselling in the form of the Reverend. Waiting in the wings for Laz is Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson, "Radio," HBO's "Lackawanna Blues,"), the local pharmacist who's sweet on him and who keeps her faith even when she sees him with Rae. But Brewer's somewhat overstuffed script is something like a bag of cats, untamed and jutting out at odd angles. The extended juke joint scene packs a whole lot of heat for a young woman learning to control her urges and the reunited couple are still suffer too much trauma to believe their happy escape is destined for anything but trouble.
The production is also a lot rougher around its edges than "Hustle & Flow," which capitalized on its grungy look as seventies genre throwback. Returning cinematography Amy Vincent allows one too many focus pulling problems and the sound recording is often muddy.
Double Snake man Jackson is a natural in this weird role and his quickly learned guitar skills appear well worn. Timberlake once again and in a completely different role, proves acting skill and the bravery to look weak, but "Black Snake Moan" belongs to Ricci in her primal scream of a career high performance.
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