Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Black Snake Moan" -- * * * 1/2

For those who were surprised they could feel sympathy and affection for a hardened pimp in Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" in 2005, get ready to fall in love with a hostile nymphomaniac and the guy who chains her to his radiator in Brewer's latest, "Black Snake Moan." "Moan" is a bit stranger and significantly more ambitious than "Hustle," and ultimately it doesn't quite reach that film's greatness, but it's truly an original piece of work that delivers in nearly every way a film should.

This is more than we deserve (and usually get) in the dog movie days of spring, and it's also probably a bit more accessible than you'd expect based on the film's poster and trailer. Like "Hustle," the film takes its characters' struggles seriously and treats them with understanding and affection.
As the film opens we're introduced to Rae (Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who're each going through some troubles. Rae's boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has just shipped off to the military, and with him gone, she's having trouble keeping her insatiable lust for sex at bay. Lazarus's wife (Adriene Lenox) has just left him for his brother, and for the first time in his life, he's questioning his faith and what he'll do next.

After a few too many pills (and a few too many guys) at a party, Rae finds herself beaten on and left for dead on the side of the road. When taking out the trash the next morning, Lazarus finds her and is determined to mend her wounds to nurse her back to health. While she's recovering, he finds out about her "history," and takes it upon himself to "cure" her. He digs out an old chain from his attack uses it to tie Rae to his old rusty radiator till she can control herself. Despite the controversial imagery, male domination plays no part here. It's ultimately about teaching Rae to respect herself; when she can do that, the chain will be unlocked.

While the film acknowledges its content and has a sense of humor about itself, it is most emphatically a drama, no matter how often the advertising campaign utilizes Sam Jackson bellowing "Get you ass back in my house!" There's a richness to the characters here that makes us grow attached to them after a short while; as with "Hustle," Brewer writes fully fleshed-out people here with intensity and uses music as an integral part of their evolution. Rae inspires Lazarus to return to his blues roots, and the scene where he soothes her urges and comforts her with the song of the film's title is the best and most powerful scene the movie has.

Ricci gives the performance of her career here, showing a fearlessness in terms of both the raw emotion and raw nudity she's asked to have on display for much of the film's running time. Jackson is the strongest he's been since at least "Changing Lanes," and quite possibly "Pulp Fiction;" you can really tell when his heart's in a project, and not just because he's not co-starring with either snakes or Eugene Levy. Timberlake does okay here in the pivotal role of Ronnie, but he doesn't seem to slip into the role as easily as he did in "Alpha Dog" just a few months ago.
"Black Snake Moan" may be a tough sell, but I have a feeling people are going to connect with it a lot more than they might expect. While no one who might enjoy the atrocious "Wild Hogs" (also opening this weekend) has any place seeing this, anyone appreciative of anything a little bit left of the mainstream will likely find something to glom onto here. There's enough sex and kickass blues to appeal to the adventurous filmgoer, as well as an emotional kick and sweet sort-of (platonic) love story at its core. In only his third film, Brewer is already shaping up to be one of the best new filmmakers around, and "Moan" only fuels excitement for his next original piece of work.


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