Review: Black Snake Moan

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With Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer showed the world how hard it was out there for a Southern pimp. Now, the irreverent iconoclast has returned to Memphis Tennessee to craft an equally-empathetic portrait of a nymphomaniac in Black Snake Moan, a tawdry tale of sin and redemption starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci.

Jackson plays Lazarus, a weather-beaten, down-on-his-luck bluesman, whose wife, Rose (Adriane Lenox), has just done left him for another man, in this case his own brother, Deke (Leonard L. Thomas).

In fact, Laz ended-up so embittered and broken by the double betrayal that he has taken to lying around the house like a lost soul. So, the name from the famous Biblical parable really isn’t needed to inform the audience that this is a character in search of a spiritual resurrection.

Laz finds inspiration for that transformation in a most unusual fashion one otherwise uneventful Sunday morning when tossing out the garbage at the end of his winding driveway. For lying there unconscious alongside the rural roadbed, and wearing nothing but panties and a midriff-baring blouse emblazoned with both the American and Confederate flags, is a bloodied and beaten young blonde (Christina Ricci).

Despite the fact that this is the South, where a Black man caught with a comatose, scantily-clad white woman on his property might have some serious explaining to do, Lazarus gathers Rae up in his arms and carries her into his house, rather than notify the authorities or rush her to the local hospital. Then, when she comes to and wants to leave, he ups the ante by chaining her to his radiator.

Wait, it’s not what you’re thinking, Lazarus isn’t interested in rape, but in purging the wanton woman of undesirable demons. You see, Rae’s got the blues, too, troubles born of having been molested by her mother’s (Kim Richards) boyfriend back when she was a child.

The abuse led to the unfortunate girl’s being afflicted with what Laz decides must be full-blown nymphomania after the seductive stranger impulsively offers him her body. Respectfully declining, he warns her that, “God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you,� whereupon she spits in his face.

The exchange sets up a classic standoff of good-versus-evil reminiscent of The Exorcist (1973). Can the Bible-thumping guitar player resist temptation or will the shameless hussy have her way with him? This is the burning issue behind Black Snake Moan, a film which never quite decides whether it wants to be a modern morality play or merely an implausible excuse to allow Christina Ricci to writhe around in a state of undress for a couple of hours.

Yes, Ricci delivers a career performance, here, her best since being a memorable second banana beside Charlize Theron in Monster (2003). But certain questions, nonetheless, begged to be addressed about the fundamental presumptions upon which the picture’s premise rests. For instance, the notion that a woman inclined to mate indiscriminately is automatically mentally ill smacks of a sexist double standard, especially since so many movies, nowadays, routinely celebrate men who exhibit the same inclination.

And even if Laz has accurately diagnosed Rae’s behavior as depraved, does anybody believe that it could possibly be cured simply by reading scriptures to her? Then there’s the sadomasochism, such as the bondage in chains and the ice water bath to calm the savage beast. These punishments sound an awful lot like the sort of primitive torture doled out to witches way back in the 17th Century. What if those ordeals didn’t do the trick? Should she be burned at the stake?

That being said, don’t be surprised if the absence of credulity fails to diminish your ability to enjoy the movie. For Ricci is so convincing in her wanton carnality which has her sleeping around with every guy in town, from a hardened pimp/crack dealer Tehronne (David Banner) to an awkward, virgin delivery boy (Neimus K. Williams). And chain-smoking Samuel L. Jackson proves to be the perfect foil, fully committing to his portrayal of a terrifying troubadour who gets a new lease on life through the perverse desire to dish out that old-time religion offset by some raw-edged, eight-bar blues.

The film also features a few other noteworthy performances, namely, Justin Timberlake as Rae’s soldier boyfriend on bivouac, S. Epatha Merkerson as the kind-hearted  local pharmacist, and John Cothran, Jr. as the Right Reverend R.L. Like Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan somehow adds up to more than the sum of its parts, in spite of a preposterous plot, transparent sexploitation, preachy pontificating, and a pat fairytale ending.

Proof-positive that screen chemistry can trump trash, and that it’s hard out here for a nympho, too.

Very good (3 Black Stars). Rated R for profanity, nudity, graphic sexuality, violence, drug use, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 118 minutes.  Studio: Paramount Vantage

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