Black Snake Moan Review

Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson) is an ageing Tennessee blues man who's hung up his guitar and settled down to a quiet life on his small farm. It's too quiet a life for his younger wife, who had expected a lot more glamour and excitement when she married him and she's dumped him for another man - his brother.

Still, Lazarus' problems are nothing compared to Rae's (Christina Ricci). She's the town tramp, a young white trash nymphomaniac who loves her soldier boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) but chases anything with a dick as soon as his back is turned. When he leaves her to ship off to war, she takes it as her cue to embark on a weekend of hard partying and screwing that ends with her lying beaten, catatonic and barely alive on the road outside Lazarus' farm.

The guitarist finds her, takes her in and helps her recover, only to find that the girl's spiritual sickness is far worse than her physical ailments. Lazarus, a Christian, decides God left Rae outside his home for a reason and he takes it upon himself to cure her of her problems with men. He means well but his method of doing it is not exactly in line with modern psychiatric thinking - he chains her to his radiator!

Black Snake Moan employs a provocative story premise - a black man chaining up a young white woman - to tell an intelligent and quite sweet story about a relationship between two wounded souls. It's a little like the 2002 bondage drama Secretary in that way - that film was a touching love story that happened to be between two people who liked kinky sex.

There's no sex between Lazarus and Rae. This is not the Russ Meyer remake of Jungle Fever the posters are suggesting! Rae comes on to him like she does to every man but he's too kind-hearted to take advantage of her. The film does suggest at times that he may be punishing her as a substitute for his errant wife but for all his flaws, Lazarus is a good guy. And Rae is genuinely disturbed, a woman with a self-destructive need to be used and abused by men.

So this is a bit more complex than the average Hollywood relationship drama, however it's not an arty psycho-drama any more than it's soft porn. Black Snake Moan is a character drama that's funny, good-natured, occasionally shocking but always entertaining. Gifted writer-director Craig Brewer, who won some acclaim for Hustle And Flow, takes some pretty twisted subject matter and finds the humour and the humanity in it. It's simultaneously taboo-breaking, thoughtful and fun.

Despite the poor box office (which may be the result of that misleading Russ Meyer marketing), general audiences should enjoy this if they're okay with the moderately graphic sexual material and a bit of unpleasant violence. I suppose some viewers will be offended at the idea of a sexually active woman being chained up to cure her but the filmmakers aren't endorsing it as a treatment. The racial element is beside the point.

This film depends like few others on the performances of its two leads and fortunately Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci are more than up to the challenge. Jackson may not be far wrong when he says it's the best work he's done. He channels his "I'm cool, just don't fuck with me" persona into a completely original and convincing character and he sings some pretty decent blues too.

Ricci will redefine the way you think of her as an actress. She's been doing decent work in indie films for years but nothing prepares you for her fearless portrayal of Rae. Spending most of her screentime in her underwear and some of it nude, she subverts your expectations of the trailer trash bimbo she's playing and makes her utterly sympathetic and her suffering harrowing to watch. The Oscars tend to ignore films that open in the first half of the year but if these two aren't nominated in 2008, they may as well not bother having a show.

The whole cast is very good. There's nice work by John Cothran Jr as Lazarus's best friend and the town preacher, S Epatha Merkerson as a local woman with a crush and Michael Raymond-James as a scummy pal of Rae's boyfriend. Speaking of whom, Justin Timberlake turns in another very solid turn, his second in a month following Alpha Dog.

I'd go as far as to say Black Snake Moan is the best film I've seen so far in 2007. It engaged me like nothing else I've watched this year. I do worry that the advertising material, cool as it looks, is drawing in a crowd that won't get what it expects and will put off many people who would appreciate the film. This is not a shameless attempt to whip up a controversy. While Christina Ricci stripped to her panties is not exactly unpleasant to look at for two hours, this isn't really a sexy film (she's also bruised and bloody for much of that time). Ignore the posters and teasers and give this a try and you'll find a warm and sensitive character drama that has more in common with Of Mice And Men than Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Overall

9

out of 10

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