Mark Reviews Movies


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Craig Brewer

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James

MPAA Rating: R  (for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 3/2/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Black Snake Moan is an odd hybrid of a character drama and an exploitation flick, the former being the bulk of the narrative progression, the latter making up the steps the story takes to get there. The movie surprisingly works for its characters, in spite of the presence of the exploitation elements, which are just that. They add nothing to the proceedings, except a sense of exaggeration that deters from the realism of the characters' plights and occasionally turns those characters into caricatures, also lessening the overall impact of their arcs. Writer/director Craig Brewer does make a decided effort to weigh in favor of his characters, and there is at least one scene when the character and exploitation elements merge into a haunting moment of pain, suffering, and the blues. The problem is the tones are more often than not at odds with each other. Perhaps that's the point, illustrating in cinematic form the inner conflict of these tortured people, but if it is, the concept works better in esoteric theory than it does in actual practice.

Down in a small Tennessee town, Rae (Christina Ricci, imbuing loads of sexuality) and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) have sex before he leaves for the Army. His nerves kick in, causing to vomit with anxiety, but he still manages to catch a ride with his friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James) to begin his time in the military, leaving his girlfriend with a watch that will beep at the same time his does so they'll remember each other. Rae is devastated, begging Ronnie to stay, and soon after he leaves, she gets the itch. Literally. Rae has a physical reaction when she craves sex, and no sooner is Ronnie gone then she starts hooking up with her usual crowd of no-regret partners with some disposable income they can toss her way. Meanwhile, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is meeting with his soon-to-be ex-wife Rose (Adriane Lenox) at a diner for coffee and some uncomfortable conversation. She has been cheating on Lazarus with his brother. Both suffering losses, Rae loses herself in booze, pills, and sex, while Lazarus loses himself in booze, cleaning out his wife's things, and the guitar. After a hard night of partying, Rae is left beaten on the side of the road, where Lazarus finds her and nurses her back to health.

He's done his homework in the meantime, though, finding out about her mischievous ways when it comes to sins of the flesh, and he plans, in the words of Jesus, "to suffer" her. So he chains her to the furnace in his house. Probably not what Jesus had in mind, but so be it. Of course, he's not just trying to "save" her; he's also taking out his own demons of his wife's rejection on her. He's a man who's heard the woman he loves tell him, "I don't love you no more," seen her with his brother, and happens to hear Rae say something his wife said while the girl is unconscious. So it's not surprising that he slips and calls Rae by his wife's name when she's trying to escape or convince him to let her go. There's an actual tug-of-war scene between the two after Rae runs out of the house, only to run out of chain. He hears about her tendency to go crazy if she doesn't have sex, and he asks her why she lets men treat her like a dog. Ironic coming from the man who's chained her up.

These are the exploitation elements at play, from the opening sex scene to the drug-induced blue haze of a party to the chaining itself, but the hints of something deeper are emerging. Sure enough, Ronnie returns, discharged for his anxiety disorder, and he tells his friend that Rae went through a lot of problems when she was young. Once the chain is gone, the healing can begin. Rae stays with Lazarus of her own free will, accompanies him to town, and confronts her mother (Kim Richards) in a painful scene that only makes matters worse for the girl. Lazarus and Rae's problems come to a head when he plays the titular blues song on the guitar for her, telling her the story of his own demons with his wife, as lightning rages outside and flashes of Rae's abuse run through her mind. It's a great scene that leads to some more overt and strange counseling with Lazarus' reverend (John Cothran Jr.), a blues concert, and the development of something more solid with a kind pharmacist from town (S. Epatha Merkerson).. These later scenes are all based on character, save for one in which a tense standoff with a gun seems an easy way to quickly develop a third soul in need of saving.

Brewer is a talented filmmaker with an auspicious future based on his so-far audacious projects, and even though Black Snake Moan's vision of conflicting tones and genres is a little too muddy, that is still clear. He has a unique voice in playing with genre expectations, and it'll be interesting to see what he's planning next.

Copyright 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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