BLACK SNAKE MOAN written and directed by Craig Brewer, with Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake and John Cothran Jr. A Paramount Vantage release. 115 minutes. Opens Friday (March 2). For venues and times, see Movies, page 87. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Sex, race, bondage and god: Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan offers a super-deluxe combo platter of American hot-button cultural issues, Southern-fried and served up with a healthy helping of in-your-face.
Christina Ricci, who's plainly been doing a lot of work with her personal trainer, is Rae, a young woman prone to fits of sexual dementia rarely found outside of Southern gothic novels and really old blues songs.
When her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) ships out to Iraq, she starts prowling around and winds up stoned, hung over and beaten up by the side of the road at the farm of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a righteous man who tries to stay away from the path of sin presented in his beloved blues music.
Lazarus decides to pray the sin out of Rae and keeps her around in her underwear, which was pretty much all she arrived in, by chaining her to the radiator.
In his follow-up to Hustle & Flow, director Craig Brewer shows an admirable lack of restraint. He does not fear the valley of the shadow of the melodrama and does nothing to back off from his film's flamboyantly over-the-top premise. Rae's haunted by a history of abuse, her boyfriend's prone to anxiety attacks, and Lazarus is just plain haunted.
Brewer's also unafraid of defiantly provocative images, a category into which Ricci in underwear and chains certainly falls. More interestingly, he generates enough trust in his cast to go with performances that will be accused of lacking "realism" Ricci and Timberlake are both working outside any sort of safety zone.
What I most like about Brewer is his fascination with music. The soundtracks in Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan are integral and don't make a lot of concessions to the demands for a saleable CD. (Oscar notwithstanding, Three 6 Mafia wouldn't have been any studio's first choice for the Hustle & Flow soundtrack.)
Brewer has a rare and real appreciation for Southern music and its creation. It's no accident that the most electrifying sequences in H&F were the recording sessions, and that here he works Jackson hard to get his guitar-playing looking right. Jackson seems to have studied John Lee Hooker's style of fingerpicking.
Black Snake Moan is noisy, stylized and more than a bit beyond the limits of what we expect from American movies in these days of watered-down product.
It may not be perfect, but it sure is fun.