BLACK SNAKE MOAN
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Samuel Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin
Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran, Jr.
Director: Craig Brewer
Audio: Dolby 5.1, 2.0, French 2.0, English and French subtitles
Video: Color Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount Home Video
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release date: June 26, 2007
“God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of your wickedness.”
Many of us are unaware that long before modern rock, metal, and hip-hop, the Blues of the Mississippi Delta of the early 20th century was all about sexuality. Any movie named after a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune that refers to a man’s unfulfilled lust will probably be about sex, so I don’t know why anyone would be shocked at Christina Ricci prancing around in her underwear. Fortunately this is much more in Black Snake Moan than a 70’s style sexploitation film or a late night Cinemax skin flick. It is ultimately a story of redemption and healing among unlikely friends.
Christina Ricci plays Mae, who at first seems to be a beautiful young girl addicted to sex, drugs, and partying. She has huge issues with her mother over the common mom’s-boyfriend-touched-me disaster. She coughs and screws her way through everything around her. When her boyfriend (played with surprising sympathy and realist by Justin Timberlake) goes off to war, he is not even gone ten minutes before she is in a hotel room with a local drug dealer. When he returns unexpectedly toward the end of the story, we learn that maybe she can heal him too. A local preacher genuinely encourages them to fix themselves. The expected racial tension, politic, or grand analogies really does not ever come up; people just seem to work together in their struggles. Which is nice for once.
Every movie requires a certain amount of “buy-in” from the viewer. That is, we have to believe that these are real people and not actors, and that the situations they are in could really happen. Craig Brewer’s excellent writing and directing comes together in a modern southern gothic tale that is titillating yet redemptive, authentic yet imaginative.
In some ways the movie reminds me of Sci-Fi or martial arts movies which are fantasies but which are so interesting that we are drawn into their world and feel a part of it. Most of the scenes in the movie are brisk, and while at first I was afraid it would sink into every cliché about the South, these are very real people in very real situations who are broken, and try to heal each other. While the whole town assumes that Lazarus has chained up Mae to use her as his sex slave, the truth is that when he finds her bleeding and half-naked by the side of the road, he sees this as a chance to help someone and work through his own pain. He can exorcise his own demons while expelling hers at the same time. In fact when Rae wakes up, convulsing with fever and reliving being raped, she writhes is as if she is truly possessed. Instead of being erotic much of her presence is terrifying and sympathetic.
While Ricci has played a sex kitten with issues in other films, this is q wholly different portrayal. Her southern accent is quite believable here as is her post-traumatic stress from being raped and beaten. Jackson is surprisingly musical, he sings and plays like a better than average amateur or a part-time professional, the latter is the role he plays in the story. Samuel Jackson plays Lazarus, who has just been dumped by his woman for his own brother, and he almost kills him on a pool table. We see flashes of his Jules Winnfield character from Pulp Fiction but as a defender of himself, fighting for pride instead of money. One of the funniest scenes of the whole movie may be when Lazarus drives his tractor right over his ex’s rose patch with a smile on his face.
Timberlake is also a surprise, playing an anxious young man who volunteers for military service even though he seems to be suffering from panic attacks before he even leaves town. The character is even more pathetic than the others, but Mae seems determined to help him rather than use him. Thus the healing power of music and simple human compassion has passed from Lazarus to Mae.
No artifacts or problems, plenty of very real southern hues instead of the more common color filtering or extraordinary shades that only Hollywood can make.
Now and then some muffled dialogue but the music sounds great. Minimal use of rear speakers but effective. We get to hear Ricci sing “This Little Light of Mine” and hearing Jackson get a good blues off was worth watching the whole movie.
I enjoyed the film but the extras for the most part are superfluous. The commentary with writer director Craig Brewer frankly wore me out. “Conflicted: “The Making of Black Snake Moan” and “Rooted in the Blues” are good but sometimes you get the impression that no one who made the film had ever seen or heard blues before, which obviously they had considering the title of the movie. They talk about the south like it was some foreign place. We do get to hear from the stars but mostly from the filmmakers, who tend to state the obvious. We get to know the musicians, which is nice. “The Black Snake Moan” is a metaphor about going blind according to this special, but this seems to conflict with every commentary on any blues song I have read. The filmmakers seem to see even more in the film than may even really be there in my opinion and while they are obviously real people that seem more cartoonish than the characters in the movie itself. There are numerous Deleted Scenes with commentary that seem to have more information about the writer and director than the scenes themselves. I wish the scene where Lazarus read from the Bible would have been left in, but since the director thinks little of religion, it is not in the main film. In the end we learn little about the origins of the story or its inspiration.
A unique and entertaining tale of redemption that is much more than what it may seem to be, full of great North Mississippi Blues. We need more interesting and musical movies like this that do not rely on gimmicks or just the music itself to entertain the viewer.