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A Morality Tale Is Told in Black Snake Moan

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
A Morality Tale Is Told in <i>Black Snake Moan</i>

DVD Release Date: June 12, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: March 2, 2007
Rating: R (for profanity, nudity, graphic sexuality, violence, drug use, and ethnic slurs)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Craig Brewer
Actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, Adriane Lenox, John Cothran, Jr., S. Epatha Merkerson

Down South, things are different.  And if writer/director Craig Brewer’s latest film is any indication, they’re also bizarre—and more than a little sordid.

The film opens with Rae (Christina Ricci) and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) locked in passion, rocking their messy doublewide, deep in the heart of Tennessee.  After experiencing an anxiety attack, Ronnie heads off to boot camp, leaving a devastated Rae behind.  Not to worry, though.  Rae soon dries her tears and heads into town, where she gets drunk and stoned, then looks for a new man.  Instead, she’s raped, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road.

Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a down-on-his-luck farmer whose wife (Adriane Lenox) has just left him for his brother.  Lazarus, or “Laz,” is an interesting character.  He drinks.  He plays the blues.  And he has a real way with words, especially the “f” one.  Lazarus can also quote Scripture—although he hasn’t been to church since his wife left, much to his preacher-friend’s dismay.  Laz is also very, very angry.

When he finds Rae on the road near his house, Laz brings her inside and nurses her back to health.  But when he learns from friends that she’s the town floozy, he decides she needs “curin’.”  So he chains her to his radiator.  She’s still wearing her white bikini underwear and cutoff t-shirt, by the way, which just happens to be emblazoned with the Rebel flag.  When Rae wakes up from her stupor, she’s naturally furious and tries to escape.  She even tries to seduce Laz—several times.  All her efforts are in vain, however.  She’s staying until she realizes that her life is worth something.

We soon learn that Rae is using sex as a way to cope with painful abuse memories as well as intense rejection from her mother, who works in the local grocery store.  But that doesn’t stop people from talking about Laz, after they see him in town buying women’s clothing.  When Ronnie shows up, having been discharged from the Army, things get even more complicated.

Brewer hit the Hollywood radar with his 2005 hit, Hustle and Flow, which portrayed a sympathetic pimp.  Here, he creates a parallel with a sympathetic nymphomaniac. Like that film, this Southern Gothic tale is clearly meant to be interpreted both literally and symbolically.  Both Laz and Rae need curing—and the bondage they live is as real as it is figurative.  The good news is that both find redemption and healing, even if it’s all more than a little unorthodox.

Having spent most of his childhood in Memphis, Brewer knows the South, and it shows.  Playing off of stereotypes that are as real as his actor’s accents, Brewer shows us what it’s like in those small towns.  This is not Hollywood hype; it’s realism—even if his characters are all larger than life.

Another thing Brewer does well is religion.  We actually meet a preacher (John Cothran, Jr.) who isn’t evil incarnate.  He loves the Lord, he loves his flock more than he loves himself, and he gives sound advice—without seeming like a cardboard cutout.  Not only that, but Laz is infused with faith as well.  Like so many other Southerners, his is far more gritty and laced with doubt, but it manages to be credible nonetheless.  They’re all broken people, searching for meaning—which they eventually find by shedding their evil ways and embracing community that defies racial lines.

The acting in this film is outstanding.  Jackson, a Tennessee native, does a superb job with his role, and you’d never know that Ricci wasn’t raised in the South (she actually spent most of her childhood in New Jersey).  The score is also superb, with a number of blues tunes that make for a very enjoyable soundtrack.  And the cinematography is just gritty enough, with excellent use of red lighting that gives the film a true blues feel.  They are all living the blues Laz sings, after all.

On the other hand, even though Brewer may be striving for artistic and hopeful, you can’t get around the fact that he has his leading lady wearing skimpy underwear and showing us her breasts throughout the film.  Both main characters cuss a blue streak and get very, very drunk more than once, and there are some disturbing sexual scenes.  Not only that, but Brewer also tends to hammer the hypocrisy that a promiscuous woman is wanton, whereas a promiscuous man is . . . well, just being a man.  And then there’s the whole Southern Gothic theme, which not everyone understands or appreciates.

Black Snake Moan, which takes its title from a song in the film, is not for the masses—especially those who like their movies sanitized.  Even if it doesn’t look particularly moral, however, this is actually a well-made morality tale.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Deleted scenes
  • Director’s commentary
  • Featurette: “The Making of Black Snake Moan"
  • Featurette: "Rooted in the Blues"

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Strong.  Numerous sequences include alcohol, drunkenness, drug references and drug usage.
  • Language/Profanity: Strong.  Dozens of profanities and obscenities, many of which are strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Strong.  At least 30 minutes of footage of woman wearing bikini underwear and cut-off top without bra, including wrestling with man wearing same; occasional glimpses of bare breasts; various depictions of sexual acts, some of which are harsh and/or graphic; dozens of crude references to and portrayals of sexual acts, including infidelity and extreme promiscuity as well as a (consensual but nevertheless illegal) sex act between an adult and a child.  Theme involving child sexual abuse is referred to several times and implied through the use of flashback sequences.
  • Violence: Strong.  Woman is savagely beaten and left for dead; man attacks another man in bar; man imprisons half-naked woman by chaining her to radiator for several weeks; one female character beats another with mop; female character jumps on unsuspecting boy, after which they have sex; various scenes involving guns, weapons and threats of violence.