Black Snake Moan
One of my all time favorite Independent films is Hal Hartley’s ‘Trust’ which featured Martin Donovan and the late Adrienne Shelly. It was a simply movie with a powerful impact. The story followed two lonely, damaged people who somehow completed and healed each other. This film came to mind as I started to watch ‘Black Snake Moan’. This is a strange flick; almost surreal in its construction. Like ‘Trust’ the two main characters are truly messed up but together they seem to heal each other. Black Snake Moan covers ground that is well traveled in film but it does so with an intensity not frequently found in a redemption flick. While the script is often predictable this is one of those films that offer a vehicle for incredible performances. We have all learned at our mother’s knee that two wrongs do not make a right. In this case this film is a very human study of how two completely dysfunctional people can help to mend each other. This is a well produced, nicely, albeit loosely, written and extremely well acted piece. The film is emotionally charged and will grab the audience almost from the start. While flawed this is a real contender in the art of cinema.
The film is set in a small, rural town in Tennessee. The town is an integrated community with poverty evident in both the black and white citizens. One of the town’s ‘white trash’ population is Rae (Christina Ricci), a small built young woman who has the redoubtable reputation as the town tramp. He current boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has joined the National Guard and has just been called up fro service in Iraq. He promises to come back to her safe and sound but Rae is not exactly the most secure girl around. After a good bye nookie with Ronnie Rae is depressed and seeks consolation the only way she knows. She almost immediately hooks up with Tehronne (David Banner), a local black drug dealer. Later, at a dance Rae gets so wasted that she is open to the advances of just about everyone and there are no lack of takers. Rae winds up beaten to a pulp and dumped out of a pickup truck at the side of an out of the way road. Wearing only her dirty panties and a piece of cloth that resembles a cut off shit, she is eventually found by a farmer, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). Lazarus had just faced a major change in his own life. His wife has just left him for his brother. Lazarus decides that God has placed in her in his path so he can redeem her from her wicked ways. To keep her put he tethers her to an old radiator in his home with a forty foot length of heavy chain.
Lazarus at one time was a blues musician. The sad songs he played on his guitar flowed out of him baring his emotions. Now, he is in fact living one of his songs with the proverbial wife and brother situation. Unable to rescue himself from his plight he turns his attention to the pathetic waif now chained in his home. Rae, on the other hand, does not want salvation. She finds in Lazarus one man that seems to be able to resist her carnal offerings. She is also not ready to give up her lusty ways. When a young man, Lincoln (Neimus K. Williams), comes by to deliver some goods lets say he gets a tip the likes of which are only seem in letters to Penthouse and many adult films. Lazarus tries to get a local preacher, the Reverend R.L. (John Cothran Jr.) to help but Rae is more than the preacher can handle. There are some other things going on in Lazarus’ life. One is the growing infatuation with a woman in town, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson). All of these events crash in on Lazarus leaving only with the hope of saving Rae.
This film comes soon after the critical hit of ‘Hustle & Flow’ also written and directed by Craig Brewer. He seems that Brewer likes to focus on people in the grips of major life changes. There are some almost absurd aspects to this film. No matter what year it is chaining a young woman to a radiator is considered rude, crude and socially unacceptable, not to mention illegal. Add to this that the one chained is white and the one doing the chaining black and this is in the deep south and even if she is the town trollop I seriously doubt they would be left alone. Sometimes you just have to let go of what makes sense on the real world and take the story on face value. This is definitely one of those times. Rae has what is called her itch, the overwhelming need to have sex. It stems from sexual abuse as a child by her father and now manifests itself with her nymphomania. Since Lazarus is unwilling to give into her obsession Rae is forced to look at her life. On Lazarus’ end he sees that he is making some progress which validates a life that was just tossed aside by his former wife. Both people are damaged but far from fragile human beings. It is just that they never had the moment of challenge and self reflection that their confrontation brings. The script works although it does fall apart at a few points. Overall the film is well paced and draws the audience in. Mostly it provides the foundation for the stellar performances of the two leads.
Samuel L. Jackson is one of those actors who can make the most out of any role he takes on. He has such talent that he can make the most out of very little. Just look at another snake oriented flick he was in, he was just about the only good thing about it. Here he embodies his role with pathos and a deep understanding. His trademark favorite color, purple, shows up with his guitar. Apparently he took up playing the blues on it not only to add to the realism but to better understand his character. Few actors can go from mindless action to an emotionally charged film like this as well as Jackson. There is a reason his name is on so many cast lists, he is a pleasure to watch. It is almost difficult to believe that even though Christina Ricci is in her mid twenties she has a career that spans almost two decades. Film goers have watched this young woman grow up on the screen and with this role she demonstrates that she has range. Ricci honed her skills in many independent films and now is posed to take on major roles. She is physically perfect for the part. With her doe like eyes and slim, barley covered body Ricci combines white trash slut with the lost little girl. Many may think (mostly men) that watching Ricci in such little clothing would be shall we say stimulating. Actually, her talent is such that we can look past the obvious and feel sorry for her. She takes her character on an emotionally insightful arc that is her best performance to date. Many pop singers want to make movies and usually can find someone to back them. Justin Timberlake is in that group but unlike many of his peers has made the right decision to take a smaller role to learn the ropes of this new aspect to his career. At this point he cannot carry a major part but to his credit seems to be aware of this and is perfecting his acting with smaller roles like this.
Paramount brings this film to DVD in a straight forward release. The anamorphic 2.40:1 video is stunning. The scope of the video shows the dusty southern landscape almost as a character in the film. The color balance is often muted, reflecting the inner conflict of the characters. The Dolby 5.1 audio is very well done. The speakers work together to provide a solid sound stage with excellent channel separation. While not for the young set this drama is well worth a treasured place in your collection.