Black Snake Moan (Craig Brewer, 2006)
I’ve been trying to figure out how to review Black Snake Moan for months and never quite came up with the proper angle. And now it’s been too long since I’ve seen it—though I do still remember this tale of redemption through the blues very, very well—and I still don’t have an angle into it, so it’s time to just start typing and hope an angle presents itself. For in case you somehow haven’t yet heard and have been waiting for me to hold forth on the subject, Black Snake Moan is an excellent, excellent movie that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. This is must-see TV of the highest order, a movie that is entirely different than what you thought it was, but unlike most cases of such things, it is something indescribably better.
The movie centers around the relationship between Rae (Monster‘s always-fetching Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson). As the movie opens, Rae—horrifically abused as a child and thus now what would have been called in more proper times a “loose woman”—has had her life turned upside-down by the news that her fiance, and the guy that keeps her stable, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), has joined the armed forces and is shipping out. He has the best of intentions, of course—they need money to survive, even in the dirt-poor little hamlet where the story takes place—and there’s none comin’ in any other way. But this leads to something of a mini-breakdown for Rae, who ends up sleeping with a bunch of people, getting beaten to within an inch of her life, and abandoned on a back road—where Lazarus, a highly moral blues guitarist, comes upon her. Now, Lazarus has his own problems, seeing as his wife has recently left him for his younger brother. Against his better judgment, Lazarus takes a liking to the girl, and decides to find a way to save her—which involves wrapping her in a forty-pound chain and attaching her to a radiator. Tough love indeed, and easily misinterpreted by others.
This could have—and I can’t imagine how much temptation there was to make it so—ended up as some sort of low-rent kinky softcore flick. And come on, let’s face it, that’s exactly what the trailer promised us, with a steaming-hot Ricci wandering around in nothing but panties and a too-tight half-T-shirt, and then ending up chained (by a black man, no less) to a radiator. That’s a trailer that plays on a lot of cultural tropes. As does the film, of course, but there’s a whole lot of selective editing going on here to make this into a bait-and-switch. And usually when that happens, you’re going to get a lot less than you bargained for; the trailer promises you cheap, kinky sex and you end up getting the barest suggestion of something that might end up being erotic. Instead, you get this pristinely-written, perfectly-acted, brilliant meditation on salvation, music, and the four types of love (you know the drill if you were raised in the Christian church, right? Eros, philos, agape, and storge?). Normally I’d be annoyed by this, but the movie is strong enough that I just sat there in awe, watching two fantastic actors in one of the most interesting situations I can imagine bringing their best work to the table—this is easily Ricci’s best role since Monster and Jackson’s since, well, I don’t know when (The Caveman’s Valentine? Eve’s Bayou?). Just to add insult to injury, who knew Justin Timberlake could act? That’s just one surprise in a movie full of them. This is an incredible cinematic experience. If you missed it the first time around, catch it at your earliest convenience. ****
Trailer. Turn down the brightness, don’t wanna scorch the screen.