‘Black Snake Moan’ is the best I’ve seen in a while

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The trailer for Black Snake Moan might ostensibly introduce the movie as a comedy with Rae (Christina Ricci) bug-eyed and bewilderedly asking “Why you got me chained?”, and the almost slapstick style with which the chain around her waist snatches her feet from underneath her as she tries to run from Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). And just for clarity, it’s actually steaks that Lazarus is “fixin (sic) for supper”, not snakes.

Black Snake Moan gives us Rae, a sassy young Southern girl who suffers from episodes of nymphomania, and Lazarus, a middle aged Holy Joe now living on a short fuse since his wife has abandoned the marriage, leaving him bitter and haunted by her decision. After a carefree night of half naked sports and casual sex for Rae, Lazarus finds her in the middle of a gravel road near his farmhouse—unconscious, beaten, and bloodied. Looking around to be sure that no one is watching, he scoops her up, seemingly suppressing the glee and euphoria of someone who has just happened upon a hundred dollar bill. After investigating who might’ve done this to the young woman, Lazarus slowly nurses her back to health with medicine from the town’s pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), who’s no doubt enraptured by Lazarus’ dim-witted charm and the sweaty muscles glistening from beneath his A-shirt. Before falling under Lazarus’ care, Rae was already well known as the town‘s go-to good time girl. Her braless crop top and cutoff jeans getup dwindled down to just the top and a pair of white panties for 75% of the film. The best thing going for her (as she sees it) is her gentle and faithful but ligyrophobic boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), who’s disorder can only be soothed by Rae using a method which only a woman can. Ronnie’s grounding presence is stripped away from Rae in the very beginning when he goes away for basic training.

Though little screen time is given to Ricci and Timberlake together, it’s clear that a separate storyline following just the two, with their combined disorders and the struggle to squelch them, would be fun (and unintentionally funny) to watch. In her role as Rae, Ricci is in top form. Of course, for those who have followed this young maven’s career, watching her work is like watching your sister (or sexual fantasy) and you are quite proud (aroused). Known for playing unconventional and dreary but sharp-witted characters, her departure from those to a fiery but fragile hot body here is a welcome change rather than a welcome relief. The choice of a lighter hue for her hair was wise, as a darker tint may have added undesired symbolism, and would stand in contrast to Hollywood‘s current recognition of blonde beauty. One might not have initially suspected her to be a good fit for this role, but she certainly proves to the contrary. Her Southern dialect is dead on, as anyone who has meet anyone from the deep, deep South knows. Her size and stature—larger head on small frame, doe-like eyes, and adolescent mouth—give believability to her fragility. While combined, the features are strikingly beautiful and breathtaking. I applaud any accomplished actress with the courage to go topless and spend most of the movie half naked. Most moving is the moment of reckoning with Rae and her mom. Given her resume, that Ricci is still required to audition with the flock is simply ghastly.

Supporting Ricci and Jackson in this sexually-charged grab-you-by-the-groin drama, Timberlake does predictably well as a meek romantic type who is passive in all confrontations except those that center around Rae. But honestly Ronnie’s personality and phobia does beg the question why was he joining the armed services to begin with.  S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) is no more than just sweet in role of Angela, a simple Southern woman looking for romance. Based on television appearances, being sweet isn’t far from her true nature. Rapper David Banner pays his dues on the road to becoming an actor as the stereotypical black thug Tehronne, though his bristling and gritty sexuality does translate well to the screen. You’ll recognize John Cothran Jr. (Reverend R.L.) from several television roles. The less than credited young black teen who plays Lazarus’ farm hand is unforgettable given the shock value of the staged scene between him and Ricci. It’s likely that the actor wasn’t actually present during the scene.

The story is set in a small Tennessee town, but the glaring question is, in which decade? On Lazarus’ first trip into “town” we can see that the scene is reminiscent of the type of 60’s town center with a blurry view of women shuffling about in bland knee-length dresses and square-framed spectacles with their up-dos and their purses clutched tightly. David Banner’s character Tehronne is fitted with contemporary hip hop garb and the Klan doesn’t come knocking when Lazarus rescues Rae from the grocery store scene (as is standard in a movie of that period), so I suppose it can’t be set four or more decades ago. But the choice of cars, lack of technology, and thick Southern dialects with no hint of education underneath make the year unclear. If it is to be contemporary, a typical Southerner might resent the film’s insistence that there are any towns left in the South where people are quite this out of touch with the mainstream. My memory may be betraying me, but I don’t recall seeing a single cell phone. I also wondered how realistic was Lazarus’ response to Ronnie’s climactic scene.

Barring the previous, my only question rather than complaint about the film, the movie is a resounding success on all fronts. It tells an enthralling story set in the heart of Tennessee, not sanctimonious or didactic, but raw and aggressive. Most impressively, the story manages to make audiences laugh (not just chuckle), turn us on, and genuinely horrify us at least twice. And all in 116 minutes. The clear irony of the story being that two opposites in a world where they would generally avoid or ignore one another come to find that one has what the other needs to be whole. For Lazarus that was a kick in the ass by a young firecracker to get him over the hump, and more dramatic, Rae, who needed a mentor to help her reevaluate herself. Sam doesn’t disappoint his die hard fans either, delivering his trademark outburst of anger and even tossing in a “Say it again mother fucker!” for good measure. Here he reminds us of one of the reasons why we love to watch him, because his hostility-laced scenes are the manifestation of every man’s pent up rage. Interplay between Jackson and Ricci is intense, with Ricci trying to gain control and Jackson trying to maintain his. Jackson has a first here, leaving the audience to wonder for a time whether he is the deranged antagonist or just a protagonist with disturbingly eccentric methods. Always hysterically funny, though often not intentionally, Sam is a sure bet for a great performance.

Will “Black Snake Moan” hustle and flow its way to the heights of its writer’s previous work? I think it may surpass it. The movie is the best I’ve seen in some time. It opens this Friday in theatres everywhere.

MY RATING:    A   
Runtime: 116 min
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use.
Paramount Vantage