Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus
Christina Ricci as Rae
Justin Timberlake as Ronnie
S. Epatha Merkerson as Angela
John Cothran Jr. as Reverend R. L.
David Banner as Tehronne
Michael Raymond-James as Gill
Adriane Lenox as Rose Woods
Kim Richards as Sandy
Neimus K. Williams as Lincoln
Leonard L. Thomas as Deke Woods
Ruby Wilson as Mayella
Directed by Craig Brewer
Craig Brewer’s latest slice of Southern melodrama has many strong visuals and great musical ideas, but it’s nowhere in the same league as “Hustle & Flow” in terms of storytelling or characters.
After his wife leaves him for his younger brother, down-and-out former bluesman Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds the beaten half naked body of Rae (Christina Ricci) on his property and decides that it’s his mission to cure the girl of her wicked ways by chaining her to his radiator until she gets over her “condition.”
Craig Brewer’s 2005 drama “Hustle & Flow” was such a daring piece of filmmaking that any follow-up is likely to be viewed with intense scrutiny. As much as “Black Snake Moan” retains Brewer’s knack for music and sense of locality, the film has a different tone, since it relies on a premise that is somewhat outlandish on paper and only slightly more serious when put on film. It’s the kind of movie you want to like simply for its originality, but ultimately, it comes down to Samuel L. Jackson being able to play a role that allows him to pull elements from his most memorable characters, including Jules from “Pulp Fiction.”
When we first meet Lazarus, a former bluesman turned farmer, he’s devastated by the feelings of betrayal when his wife leaves him for his younger brother. When we first meet Rae, she’s having sex with her boyfriend Ronny (Justin Timberlake) on his last night before heading off to Iraq. No sooner has he left when she runs wild, taking drugs and f*cking anything that moves, and when Ronny’s best friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James) finds out what Rae’s doing, he beats her within an inch of her life and leaves her comatose body by the side of the road. Rae and Lazarus’ stories intersect once the bluesman finds her and tries to tame her and keep her from straying by chaining her inside his house, something that doesn’t improve the town’s opinion of him.
It’s hard not to assume that things are veering into ’70s exploitation territory once these two characters collide, and one can only imagine the put-upon black man finally getting payback for the way he’s been treated. Rae certainly is the type of clueless backwater white trash that probably deserves the humiliation of being chained to a black man’s radiator, but wisely, Brewer takes things in a more tasteful direction, dealing with the subjects of her lust and sexuality with a certain degree of control, to insure that even the more outlandish scenes never seem exploitative. Even so, their situation isn’t particularly plausible, so it’s hard not to hoot and howl when the “bug” sweeps over Rae and she starts writhing on the ground in various states of undress or jumping any guy who comes into contact with her. For the most part, the movie’s erratic tone isn’t easy to adjust to, especially when Brewer inserts a romantic subplot between Lazarus and S. Epatha Merkerson, as the woman who runs the local pharmacy.
With a balding head of grey hair, matching beard and gold-encased front teeth, Lazarus is one of Jackson’s stronger roles and his best performance in some time. Though he throws more than a few “Jacksonisms” into the character to keep his fans happy, he really explodes as a performer when he picks up his guitar and starts wailing the blues in some of the film’s best scenes. His on-screen presence is so electrifying that when the story cuts away to other characters, things grind to a halt. Pitting Jackson against Ricci’s Rae seems like an unfair battle as Ricci’s annoying, tinny voice makes it hard to take her too seriously as a sexed-up Southern vixen. Her over-the-top performance doesn’t help matters, even when Rae tries to reconcile with her uncaring mother in a scene that seems more forced and obvious than moving. Sadly, Ricci still doesn’t have the depth as an actress to make scenes like this work.
At least she doesn’t have Justin Timberlake’s unenviable role, as he returns to the story an hour in, after being booted from the National Guard. He tries his best to act tough, but then breaks down blubbering any time things get difficult, leading to more unintentionally funny moments. After spending so much time building the relationship between Lazarus and Rae, it seems pointless to throw Ronny back into the mix, because there’s no reason to start caring about him so late into the game.
Despite the casting problems, there’s little question that Brewer’s talents as a filmmaker sets this movie apart from the pack, mainly due to his impeccable taste in music, knowing exactly the perfect tune to make a scene work, and his ability to write strong and believable regional dialogue. These two things often save “Black Snake Moan” from deteriorating into another bad Tennessee Williams wannabe, even if Brewer often wears the movie’s influences on his sleeve with the way it’s shot in such a retro-stylish way.
When it comes down to it, the end of the movie is a letdown as it shifts the focus of the story to the fractured relationship between Rae and Ronny, thereby leaving all Lazarus’ pain and turmoil high and dry. While we’re supposed to believe that all his problems end when he helps Rae reconnect with Ronny, to create such a strong screen character like Lazarus, then cut his story arc short is just one of the film’s disappointments.
The Bottom Line:
Despite a great blues-driven soundtrack and a lot of strong visuals, the premise behind “Black Snake Moan” isn’t really strong enough to carry it, and a stronger overall cast would certainly have made it a better follow-up to “Hustle & Flow.” If nothing else, Brewer has come up with the perfect solution for dealing with the dozens of out-of-control teen actresses in the world.