Black Snake Moan (2006) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenplay: Craig Brewer
Review published October 14, 2007
Blind Lemon Jefferson's song from 1927 provides the inspiration for the title, as well as its Blues motif, in this seriocomic look at people with a whole lot of inner demons to overcome. Interestingly, it isn't self-discovery or a trip to the local shrink that soothes troubled souls, but rather, love and kindness as shown by someone else, usually a someone that has their own mental wounds to heal. This makes it two for two for writer-director Craig Brewer (after Hustle & Flow), who continues making thought-provoking dramas with interesting characters that, while not always realistic, compels us to look further than the surface to derive thematic resonance to give us something to discuss long after the film is through. Interestingly, whether it's a pimp, a nympho, or a kidnapper, he manages to make these characters sympathetic and relatable, despite their sins, flaws and vices.
Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane, Freedomland) plays Southern farmer Lazarus, whose wife has just left him for an old friend, leaving him lonely and angry at what has transpired. The former Blues guitarist soon channels these feelings when he comes across Rae (Ricci, Cursed), beaten and feverish to the point of near-death. Rae is known around the town as the local floozy whose only steady beau (Timberlake, Edison) has just left for a stint in the armed forces, leaving her with the inner itch that only a true hardcore nymphomaniac would scratch without rationale. Lazarus sees that no good will come of her self-destructive behavior if he just throws her back to the wolves, so he chains the young woman to his sturdy home radiator, not willing to release her until he knows she is ready to try to live an upright life.
From outward appearances, Black Snake Moan would seem like a straight-up exploitation flick, and to a certain extent, it does have some exploitative qualities to it. However, where it separates itself from the b-movie horde is in its richer dialogue, characters, and quality of the direction, which definitely could have played up many of the kinkier aspects to further extent, but Brewer offers restraint (no pun intended). It's not about the appeal of wanton sexuality, but rather, the lack of appeal when that sexuality is done more for stemming off of an inner pain than for pleasure. Rae's sad childhood full of constant abuse is the catalyst for her behavior. To date, she has only talked to one other person about her past, and that person saw beyond her vices to discover someone worth keeping, but he couldn't find a cure.
Meanwhile, Brewer offers is a dual-natured relationship between Lazarus and Rae that serves to force both parties to confront just what is ailing them. Lazarus is still licking his wounds after his own wife couldn't resist her urges to cheat on him, which causes him to not be able to bear seeing a girl in the prime of her beauty do the same so willingly, and repeatedly. Meanwhile, Rae eventually comes to see Lazarus as a sort of father figure, who sees her sexuality but chooses to overcome his own desires for the purpose of helping her get better. Unlike her own father who took without asking, and without any offering on her part, she does everything she can to get Lazarus to succumb, but all he does is offer her the stability and tough love she needs, even if it crosses way over the line of legality.
The interesting thing about Black Snake Moan is that the entertainment factor comes from the characters and their journey much more so than the nudity, sexuality and violence contained within. Unlike true exploitation movies, Brewer's treatment actually has us care that these characters achieve some sort of inner peace. The joys of seeing a Ricci sex scene or Jackson show expletive-driven rages is abated by the fact that we don't want Rae to continue to hurt herself or to see Lazarus unable to achieve happiness. Interestingly, we also don't hope that the two end up together, despite their obvious need for one another, mostly because it would undo just about any progress that they might be able to make, and both will probably be lost to their own hurtful feelings for a great deal longer.
Black Snake Moan benefits from strong performances from the main actors, though this is really Ricci's film to shine in. Perhaps it is a cathartic experience for her to play someone with a great deal of angst to try to control, given her own troubled childhood ways of coping, and pushing the boundaries to the brink of insanity certainly shows how foolish it is to always act on one's basest impulses. Needless to say, this kind of racy material isn't for everyone, but for those who will see that Brewer has a story to tell, and that he tells it well, you will be able to enjoy the film for the heart and guts of it much more so than the titillating trinkets and kinky adornments that probably had you wanting (or not wanting) to see it in the first place.
©2007 Vince Leo