Black Snake Moan

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Abandoned by his long-suffering wife, one-time blues guitarist Lazarus sees a chance of obtaining redemption when young Rae is dumped, bruised and battered, outside his farmstead.  Rae, however, is deeply troubled and frequently overpowered by helpless sexual urges, forcing Lazarus to seek unconventional methods to tame her.

Southern trailer trash Rae (Christina Ricci) is besotted with her Army boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake); but she has some kind of devil in her, and when Ronnie leaves for duty despite his own emotional troubles, she looks for sex and other thrills elsewhere, to the disgust of Ronnie’s friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James). Gill assaults Rae and leaves her bloodied outside the front gate of small-time farmer Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson), who has problems of his own, his wife Rose having left him for another man after nearly thirty years.

Despite being a God-fearing churchman, Lazarus just can’t forgive; but neither can he express his anger. He takes Rae in and nurses her back to health, but discovers her insatiable appetite and resolves to ‘cure her of her wickedness’, even if it means chaining her to the radiator and keeping her captive like an animal. By degrees, the pair come to understand each other, Lazarus re-finding his old love for playing blues guitar. Even the local reverend (John Cothran) helps Lazarus in his unusual mission; but it seems less likely that pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), looking to catch Lazarus’ eye, or a returning Ronnie will understand the strange domestic set-up.

From its premise, you fear the worst for Black Snake Moan and its stars: it sounds like it’s either going to be a pompous exploration of sensuality à la Last Tango in Paris, or a designedly cheap exploitation movie like Wild Things*, or maybe even a combination of the two – which approximates to the ghastly Boxing Helena. But Brewer’s film is none of these things. It is, instead, a story driven by the primitive, howling power of the blues; a story – or rather, two colliding stories – of lost souls finding outlets for their hurt.

Since Lazarus does chain Rae, perpetually half-naked, to a radiator, the movie could very easily come across as semi-pornographic; yet the film avoids this, largely by dint of Ricci looking cadaverous and unbecomingly wild, which helps bolster the idea that Lazarus is solely trying to exorcise her from demonic possession. Crucially, he shows no interest at all in Rae as a sexual object, bound up as he is in his own world of pain and blues. Jackson apparently plays guitar himself, though I’m not altogether sure he plays everything; whatever, it’s wonderful to see him playing close to his true age for once. He’s absolutely masterful as ‘Laz’, running the full gamut of emotions, from joy to despair, tenderness to violent outrage.

Ricci has been good and not-so-good in the past; but her bold and anguished portrayal of Rae, her lasciviousness plausibly emanating from an abusive past (leading to a confrontation with her awful mother), is convincing, riveting and (with the odd exception) focused much more on her mental distress than her physical undress. Other performances are largely effective, including young Neimus K. Williams whose Lincoln suddenly and unexpectedly comes of age; however, Justin Timberlake is clearly at the start of his acting career, since his idea of doing ‘troubled’ is to frown a lot. He would be a lot better by the time The Social Network came along.

By and large, writer/director Craig Brewer evokes the Deep South with colour and a keen sense that the searing heat demands that events unfold at a slow pace. Blues music is artfully used, not least during Lazarus’ raucous, cathartic concert, where Rae finds she can express her desires without taking them to their physical conclusion. And while the plot sets up expectations of an American Beauty-like climax, it neatly sidesteps them to deliver a surprisingly sweet and optimistic finale, with just a hint that it’s not necessarily a case of Happily Ever After.

Brewer doesn’t get everything right, however: the stormy night where Lazarus reclaims his (musical) potency is cranked up to ridiculous proportions, and all the goodwill and good acting in the world can’t hide the fact that the film is centred around some very odd, nay objectionable, sexual politics: what movie would dare – with a straight face – chain up a lust-filled man in order to ’cure’ him? However, the fact is that I believed in the characters, that Lazarus acts with good if misplaced intentions; and I honestly found his and Rae’s mutual healing quite touching.

There are some who will find the idea of a woman learning (an approximation of) love and respect through involuntary confinement completely repulsive; and were Black Snake Moan simply an excuse to look at Ricci in her skimpies (cf. Anything Else), I would be among that party. Yet Brewer seems to genuinely care for his characters, and gives Rae both a rationale for her behaviour and, more importantly, a glimpse of a better life ahead. If you’re open-minded, forget the come-on title and give it a go. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than Jackson’s previous snake-related movie.

NOTES: The dreadful poster would have led you directly to this conclusion. May I refer you to Bill Hicks’ advice to those in advertising or marketing.

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