Black Snake Moan (2007): Brewer’s Sophomore Jinx

Sundance Film Festival 2007–A much-anticipated follow-up to “Hustle & Flow,” one of the highlights of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition, “Black Snake Moan” is not as crowd-pleasing, but on many levels, it’s a more credible and better work, if also flawed.

Like “Hustle & Flow,” “Black Snake Moan” offers another journey into the heart of a southern musician, this time around tapping into the essence of the blues, with the saga of a man hell-bent on saving a lost soul–and in the process saving himself.

The picture, which divided film critics at its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (Premiere Section), benefits considerably from the lead casting of the indefatigable Samuel L. Jackson as the musician, and Christina Ricci as the lost soul. As a white trash sex bomb, Ricci gives one of her strongest performances in a long time.

Narratively, Brewer’s films are based on a similar premise. In a small Tennessee town, two unlikely souls meet at the crossroads of what Brewer describes as “rage and love.” Lying beaten on the side of the road is Rae (Ricci), a young woman who had developed a reputation as nymphomaniac, an insatiable sex bomb (in 1950s literature, drama, and film, the type used to be described as “sexually loose” or “promiscuous”for fear of censorship).

Lazarus (Jackson), Rae’s rescuer, is a former blues guitarist, who is used to life’s relentless refrains of trouble and sorrow. Like the lead pimp in “Hustle & Flow,” he is desperate for a significant change himself. To that extent, Lazarus takes extreme measures to “cure” and “save” Rae of what he perceives as her wicked, immoral conduct. However, to get to the deep, dark side of Rae’s problems, Lazarus first has to face his own inner demons.

The God-fearing, middle-aged black man quickly learns that the young white women he is nursing back to health has a peculiar anxiety disorder. Lazarus realizes that Rae’s affliction has more to do with love lost. Rae is a particularly problematic woman. Raped as a child, abandoned in motherly love, abused by many men, she has tethered her only hope to Ronnie (Justin Timberlake).

However, her chance for a better and healthier life is cut short when Ronnie ships off for boot camp. As a result, desperation kicks in as the drug-induced Rae reverts to surviving the only way she knows how–by using (and abusing) her sexuality bluntly, fulfilling men’s desires.

There is a whole Southern tradition of eccentric femme that began and was put on the map by the work of Tennessee Williams. The central character of “Black Snake Moan” recalls the lead of Kazan’s “Baby Doll,” played by Carol Baker in 1956 (based on his one-act play, “27 Wagonloads of Cotton”). Thematically, Rae represents an updated version of this prevalent type, one that enjoys considerably greater freedom due to our less rigid mores, sexual and otherwise.

Refusing to know her in the biblical sense, Lazarus decides to cure Rae in non-traditional ways. Hence, after chaining her to his radiator, he justifies his unorthodox method with quoted scriptures. Preacher R. L. (John Cothran) intervenes, but in the end, it’s Lazarus and Rae who have to redeem themselves.

As is the tradition of such melodramas, secrets and desires are disclosed for the characters to get to know themselves better. Hence, it’s no big surprise that in the process of healing Rae, Lazarus needs to unchain his heart, too. And indeed, he finds love again in Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson).

“Black Snake Moan” is far too long (118 minutes) for the story it has to tell; it could easily lose a whole reel without any loss. In its good moments, which are plentiful, “Black Snake Moan” blends drama and virtuoso music; the movie pulsates with the beats and rhythms of sex and love, and above all, anguish and pain.

There’s good chemistry between Jackson and Ricci, both of whom are feisty and gutsy actors when granted the right material. The film’s best moments are based on a series of emotionally charged and physically intense confrontations between Rae and Lazarus.

In supporting roles, singer-rapper Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, and John Cothran add color and interest to what’s basically a two-handler drama.

Unfortunately, as he showed in his previous works, Brewer the director has a penchant for hysteric melodramatics, here reflected in some preposterous scenes, in which Rae expresses (to put it mildly) her animalistic sex drive.

Deep down, again like “Hustle & Flow,” “Black Snake Moan,” is a modern morality tale with occasional touches of Southern Gothic and other hyperbolic elements. The film’s title derives from the lyrics of a blues tune, but it can also describe Rae’s unbridled libido, which is literally aroused to scary, unprecedented dimensions when she hears different black snake moans.

Credits

Paramount Vantage

Running time: 118 minutes

Producers: John Singleton and Stephanie Allain
Director-writer: Craig Brewer

Cast

Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson)
Rae (Christina Ricci)
Ronnie (Justin Timberlake)
Preacher R. L. (John Cothran)
Anglea (S. Epatha Merkerson)