“God put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of your wickedness.” There are only a handful of actors who can utter that phrase and make us believe it, and Samuel L. Jackson is on the top of that list. In “Black Snake Moan,” the latest offering from “Hustle and Flow” director Craig Brewer, Jackson plays Lazarus, a burnt out and love-sick Blues guitarist turned farmer. After his wife runs off with his brother, Lazarus is on the slow boat to depression when he crosses paths with Rae (a tarted up Christina Ricci).
Now Rae is a real piece of work. Afflicted with nymphomaniacal fits when faced with a crisis, she’s left groaning and convulsing on the ground till she can find a handful of pills, a bottle of booze, and a man to have sex with. Naturally, this sort of behavior leads to many encounters with the wrong kinds of men. Which brings us back to Lazarus. One morning, he finds Rae on the side of the road, wearing only underwear and a ragged tube top, and her face smashed in after one of those rough encounters. Lazarus takes her back to his home and takes it as his calling to redemption to set her right. So he does what any sensible man would do: he chains her to his radiator and teaches her about The Blues and soul food.
Jackson is great, as always, in this sort of role. There’s something about the way he delivers his lines that makes anything he says a riot. But it’s Ricci who stands out here. Not only is this the most we’ve seen of her (she spends ~90% of the film mostly naked), this is the most emotional outlay from one of her roles that I can recall. Some of the later moments ring prefab, but by and large her portrayal of the emotionally and physically broken Rae is fully believable. This is more impressive given the intentionally quirky setting she’s in.
“Black Snake Moan” is a very well made film. It has a simple and bare-bones feel, but the craftsmanship is palpable. The camerawork is tight and the slick editing makes for some great tension. In particular, the way Brewer constructs some of the later scenes with Rea creates genuine concern that she’s about to sink back into her old ways; falling back into vice from the doorstep of salvation. But that’s not to say this is a movie about religion. There’s no doubt that faith plays an important role here given the setting and themes at work, but Brewer aims for a more all-encompassing view of morals and personal dignity which has a universal resonance.
Ultimately, “Black Snake Moan” may be the unwitting victim of its own hype. The movie has one of the more misleading promotional campaigns in recent memory. The trailer would have you believe that this is some sort of retro-blacksploitation comedy, courting controversy with a repugnant combination of Southern Gothic and latent racism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, what you get is an earnest and brooding look at simple people overcoming grave emotional damage. The painfully real drama stands in stark contrast to what you’ve been led to expect, and this is rather jolting and, perhaps to some, disappointing. There are laughs to be had, but on balance there are more tears to be shed.
Between Lazarus howling about his failed marriage and Rae writhing on the ground like a cat in heat, it’s hard to take “Black Snake Moan” too seriously. There is an uplifting message buried beneath all the southern fried despair, and the actors do a good job of bringing that to the surface, if too briefly. It’s obvious what Brewer is trying to say, but the delivery is too bizarre for its own good, and there isn’t enough to make a lasting emotional impact. This keeps “Black Snake Moan” from being more than a small film; it’s a good film, but it lacks that ‘oomph’ to be a better one.
Craig Brewer (director) / Craig Brewer (screenplay)
CAST: Samuel L. Jackson … Lazarus
Christina Ricci … Rae
Justin Timberlake … Ronnie
S. Epatha Merkerson … Angela
John Cothran Jr. … Reverend R. L.
David Banner … Tehronne
Michael Raymond-James … Gill