You have to admit, the name alone sounds like a bad Japanese translation of a porn title, and if the premise doesn’t raise your eyebrows, then you probably don’t have eyebrows. Craig Brewer’s follow-up to Hustle and Flow is actually a remarkably warm-hearted tale of personal redemption for two lost souls who meet on a downward spiral for each.
That doesn’t mean this is a Disney movie by any stretch. In Hustle, Brewer’s lead character had a young white girl in economic bondage as her pimp. In this movie, the bondage is a little more literal, but instead of profiting from the girl’s wicked, wicked ways, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is trying to cure her of her wicked, wicked ways. I suppose that one could write a good psychology thesis on what this says about Craig Brewer, but this blog is not called Freudian Heroes.
Rae (Christina Ricci) is unhappy because her boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), has volunteered for the Army and is shipping out for Iraq. She has a peculiar way of dealing with loneliness, namely raging nymphomania, spurred by childhood sexual abuse. An unfortunate series of events involving a party, drugs and Ronnie’s best friend leaves Rae beaten, half-naked and left for dead at Lazarus’ doorstep.
For his part, Lazarus is reeling from his divorce from his unfaithful wife (Adriane Lenox). When he discovers Rae lying in the road, he takes her in and first treats her injuries. To keep the delirious young woman from wondering away, he chains her to his radiator. A few inquiries around town reveals that this girl was one might call a “reputation.” He decides that God has chosen him to save this girl and cure her of her sinful ways and leaves her chained up.
The whole concept of a black man in the south keeping a white woman chained up in his home is naturally provocative and this movie does not shy away from the implications. This is not, however, meant to be a realistic story. If it were, Lazarus would probably end up in jail. Black Snake Moan, much like Hustle and Flow, is a story about the redemptive power of music, although this movie is far less literal about it than Brewer’s first feature. Instead, Black Snake Moan is as much about the healing power of human connection as it is about the blues music, and indeed explicitly equates the two.
Despite the lurid overtones, this is a movie that gives great credence to its character’s beliefs. Brewer does not mock or trivialize Lazarus’ Christianity and makes the Reverend R.L. (John Cothran) his most intelligent, sophisticated character, much like Anthony Anderson’s churchgoing character in Hustle and Flow.
Jackson’s performance is worthy of note, playing against his ultra-cool image to portray a middle-aged, deeply religious man. He learned to play the guitar for the role, does his own singing and acquits himself admirably in both regards.
Christina Ricci’s performance, however, is virtually fearless. Required to spend much of the first half of this movie virtually naked, she gives an intensely raw and physical performance that I couldn’t help but admire.
With two strong performances at its core, Black Snake Moan is a worthy follow-up to Hustle and Flow and a sign of real progress for a promising filmmaker.