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Black Snake Moan   B+

Paramount Vantage

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Craig Brewer
Writer: Craig Brewer
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner.

Review by Rob Vaux

What a weird and marvelous outing Black Snake Moan is. Director Craig Brewer's follow-up to his excellent Hustle & Flow defies just about any expectation one could conceivably place on it. Its poster promises postmodern exploitation, combining old-school race inflammation with barely disguised sensuality to seduce and outrage in equal measures. But the film behind it is... well, not the polar opposite, exactly, but it certainly holds a lot more ingredients in its stew. The best description would probably be "Gothic morality play," couched as a form of magical realism in which everything -- character, incident, emotion, and atmosphere -- becomes richer and more sublime.

It's also an extended meditation on the power of the blues, focusing two hours of plot into an extended variation of "I'm so sad 'cause my baby done left me." Its protagonists certainly have reasons to sing that refrain. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former musician whose wife just split with his brother, leaving him in a murderous rage that struggles beneath the strength of his immense religious faith. Rae (Christina Ricci, a long way from Wednesday Addams) is the local tramp, her nymphomania fed by a lifetime of sexual abuse and calmed by a well-meaning boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), whose departure for the Army only worsens her condition. Left for dead on the side of the road after an attempted rape, she's found by Lazarus and slowly nursed back to health. Her wild emotional swings and tendency to sleepwalk lead him to chain her to the radiator, a fact she finds less than amusing when the fever finally breaks. But Lazarus has taken it upon himself to heal her wounds whether she wants him to or not, and in the process perhaps silence some of his own demons as well.

Brewer clearly grasps the overheated exploitation of his scenario, but he also understands how to play it without resorting to self-parody. Indeed, he takes fearsome advantage of the steaming sexuality and thick pulp on display, while underscoring it with a deep sense of intimacy. The battle of wills between Rae and Lazarus pulls them open before our eyes, laying bare their every secret and desire in raw, primal strokes. Black Snake Moan trusts its leads to deliver the human connection so necessary to make that work; without their emotional honesty, the film would never break loose of its tacky surface. But there's Jackson, accentuating his badass motherfucker routine with depths of pain and resolve, while Ricci (who really needs to start eating more) exudes a vulnerability and despair that lifts her trailer-park cooze well above the one-note stereotype. Even Timberlake shows signs of life, adroitly using his baby-faced looks to highlight his character's insecurities.

The film overlays their conflict by accentuating the surrounding environment with the barest touch of expressionism. From overarching thunderstorms to the slap of Rae's chain against the bare plank floor, every element serves to highlight some aspect of the characters' internal battles. Brewer keeps a firm hand on it all throughout, allowing religious overtones to seep in without departing from ostensible naturalism. And always, there is the music -- scorching blues variations begun with the first shot and running through Black Snake Moan like a main circuit.

The results chart a path of redemption through struggle, in which the figures onscreen dive so deeply into themselves that the path back cannot help but change them. It becomes intoxicating at times, though parts may be too much to swallow if you're not in sync with its vibes. The racial elements, in particular, approach lines that some audience members would prefer not to cross, and while Brewer uses that to observe and comment rather than exploit, such a distinction may lie in the eye of the beholder. But even at its most preposterous, Black Snake Moan keeps us riveted to the screen, sparking an intensity that few can forget once it washes over them. That Brewer can ride it as far as he does speaks to talent that has only begun to be tapped, and which bears watching no matter what he chooses to apply it to next.

Review published 03.01.2007.

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