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Worth A Look38.3%
Just Average: 4.26%
Pretty Crappy: 19.15%
Sucks: 0%

5 reviews, 17 user ratings

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Black Snake Moan
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Where Are The White Women At? Never Mind--I Found One"
5 stars

Many films come out trying to pass themselves off as controversial but Craig Brewer’s "Black Snake Moan" is the real thing–a work that is so wildly provocative and over-the-top that even the most jaded, see-it-all moviegoers are likely to find themselves taken aback by it. I can’t remember a time in recent memory when an American director whipped up such a gumbo of racial, sexual and social politics and then proceeded to serve it up in such an in-your-face manner that every single person who sees it–regardless of where they sit on the racial, sexual and social spectrums–is liable to choke on it at some point out of amusement, anger and outrage as it unfolds. And yet, it tells its screw-loose story in such a forthright manner and with such heedless and fearless energy that you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen, even if you are busy rubbing them out of sheer disbelief.

The opening scenes of the film introduce us to our two central characters, the rural Tennessee town where they live and the circumstances that will eventually drive them into the lives of each other. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a once-promising bluesman whose life has essentially turned into one of the songs that he used to bang out on his guitar in any number of juke joints–his inner demons have cost him his wife (who dumps him for his brother as the film opens) and career and leaves him sitting in his remote shack veering between a desire to get right with God and succumbing to the rage simmering just beneath his surface. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a perpetually-in-heat harlot who struts through town with a hacking cough, an itch that may never be scratched and a compulsion to sleep with anyone who will offer her either the illusion of love or enough booze and drugs to make her too numb to care. (When she walks into the local convenience store, the clerk asks “Cough drops or condoms?”) When her beloved boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) ships out to Iraq, he has barely left the driveway before the fever sends her back out on the prowl again. One night, she goes off with the wrong guy and is beaten and left for dead in a ditch, which is where Lazarus finds her and takes her back to his home.

Over the next few days, Lazarus nurses the semi-conscious Rae back to health and begins to learn some details about her life and reputation. Before long, he becomes convinced that she has been sent to him by God so that he can stop her from her sinful ways and by God, he intends to do it. His plan, such as it is, involves tethering the half-naked girl to an old radiator with a 40-pound steel chain and padlock in order to break her of her habits in the way one might do with a dog. Needless to say, when Rae finally comes to, she is less than thrilled to discover that she a virtual prisoner in the home of this strange old man. A battle of wills breaks out between the two–one in which Lazarus’s sheer righteous power is more than matched by Rae’s sheer erotic power–that eventually develops into an odd friendship as they wind up beginning to help each other in unanticipated ways in their isolation–Lazarus inspires Rae to give herself some self-respect while she encourages him to break out the slide guitar he put away long ago. Eventually, the real world intrudes on their tarpaper idyll and it remains to be seen whether they have actually broken each other of their past cycles of bad behavior or if they will wind up slipping back into their old habits again.

Based on this description and the oh-so-provocative title (not to mention a poster designed to look like the cover of one of those books you used to find behind the counter at the drugstore), you might assume that "Black Snake Moan" is one of those movies that is so self-conscious about reminding viewers about how shocking and transgressive it thinks it is that it never gets around to telling a story that is interesting enough to stand up on its own. This was the problem with "Hustle & Flow," Brewer’s 2005 follow-your-dream story of a low-class pimp trying to find some personal and professional redemption by becoming a rapper–the more it strained to tell us how authentically radical and baadasssss it was, the less it felt. On the surface, "Black Snake Moan" might seem to be a semi-clone of that earlier film with its mixture of racially charged imagery and dark sexuality set in the seamy and steamy South to the beat of a throbbing and ever-present musical soundtrack. The difference is that with this film, Brewer has managed to find the correct tone for his cheekily lurid storyline–this is an exploitation film that isn’t afraid to be just that and rather than waste time trying to underline how edgy it is, it just goes for broke and does it. Instead of trying to play down the unabashedly trashy aspects of the story in a bid for respectability, Brewer plays them up for all that they are worth and dares everyone in the audience to take issue with it.

Beyond that, "Black Snake Moan" is also just a blast to watch. Because there is never a scene in which Lazarus spells out for us exactly why he is doing what he is doing, there is a sense of mystery to the story that keeps us interested after the initial shock of a shackled and pantie-clad Christina Ricci has worn off–part of the fun comes from seeing just how far Brewer can push the material before the whole thing implodes. Visually, the film is pretty impressive as well because of Brewer’s ability to effortlessly capture arresting imagery in a simple and direct manner that also works to amplify story points as well–the screw-you nature of Rae walking down the middle of a dirt road while refusing to get out of the way of the traffic behind her says more about who she is than any conventional exposition could. As in "Hustle & Flow," music plays an important part in the proceedings, both in creating atmosphere and pushing the story along. This time around, there are the two extraordinary musical moments in the film–the first has Lazarus plugging in his guitar for the first time in ages as a wild thunderstorm rages outside and the second has him cranking out a hot version of the classic “Stackolee” for a hopping juke joint audience–that fuse together music and image in such an overwhelming manner that you want to applaud when the scenes are over.

For all the directorial flourishes, this is the kind of film that lives and dies on the strength of the main performances because the roles of Lazarus and Rae require the kind of performers who can commit to them with complete seriousness, no matter how extreme or ridiculous their actions of behaviors may seem. If the actors are going to deliver lines such as “I aim to cure you of your wickedness!” and expect us to buy them, we have to believe that they are saying them with all earnestness and if we get even the slightest hint that they are winking at us to show that they know how outrageous the story is, the effect is lost and the movie is all but over. Here, the performances by Jackson and Ricci are simply spectacular, all the more so because neither one has exactly been on a winning streak in terms of picking scripts as of late. For Jackson, this single performance not only makes for his disastrous 2006 (which included such duds as "Freedomland," "Snakes on a Plane" and "Home of the Brave") but is easily the best work he has done since the little-seen "The Caveman’s Valentine." Of course, he is great in the scenes in which he blusters and rages with furious anger–face it, Jackson is Hollywood’s go-to guy for bluster and furious anger–but he is equally strong and compelling in the quieter, character-driven scenes as well, not to mention entirely convincing in his musical moments as well. Most actresses might have caved in a head-to-head match with an actor of his force and caliber–especially when forced to spend the majority of the film clad in a tiny T-shirt, tinier panties and a heavy metal chain but Ricci proves to be more than up to the challenge–by turns sexy, snarky and sad, this may be the single best performance of her entire career. As for Justin Timberlake, he isn’t in the film all that much but he turns in a more-than-credible performance that suggests that he might have a future as an actor if he ever decides to give up the day job.

"Black Snake Moan" isn’t a completely perfect and flawless film–Brewer takes a little too much time to wrap things up and a subplot involving the budding relationship between Lazarus and the local pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson) seems to have been shoehorned in from another movie altogether–but these flaws hardly begin to take away from its more considerable achievements. Sure, the results are likely to shock, offend or appall some viewers but its audacious take-no-prisoners attitude–a kind not seen since the days since the late great Sam Fuller offered up such pulp classics as "Shock Corridor" (in which a black man is so traumatized by racial prejudice that he becomes convinced that he is a member of the Klan) and "White Dog" (in which a black animal handler who tries to break the will of a dog trained to attack black people)–is as bracing in these increasingly timid moviegoing times as a glass of white lighting on a hot summer day.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15595&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/02/07 00:33:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/17/09 Billl Flowers Awesome performances by Jackson and Ricci 5 stars
6/14/09 art A REALISTIC MOVIE!,realistic and gritty! 3 stars
3/23/09 lalaland whoever said this movie is cute is stupid wth? 5 stars
1/24/09 Anonymous. i loved the story, great acting-a must see. 3.5/4 :] 5 stars
11/29/08 Samantha Pruitt great movie and great story, the music brings it all together, Ricci is so great! 4 stars
11/22/07 Random How powerful a story of freedom this is--steeped in the blues of heartache & wretchedness. 5 stars
10/15/07 Beau timberlake can actually act, ricci is lucious and dialogue suited theme of movie! 4 stars
7/02/07 William Goss A Southern-fried screwball sermon with a surprisingly soft soul. 4 stars
6/19/07 Lamb Check it out You'll be pleasantly surprised/ moved. 5 stars
5/06/07 skdju what a movied 5 stars
3/20/07 malcolm an old black man in tenn. knows better than to chain up a white girl in her panties 2 stars
3/19/07 Ole Man Bourbon Cute but forgetable. 4 stars
3/15/07 dmitry Samuel jackson in a bad hairpiece and more stereotypes than you can shake a stick at 2 stars
3/06/07 Jean Y Superb acting, good music, good photography, poor editing. Too long. 4 stars
3/05/07 Donny M First 45 mins good. Then went to shit. RICCI HOT! 3 stars
3/02/07 David Pollastrini Ricci is hot! 4 stars
3/02/07 ericdog11 sucky 2 stars
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  02-Mar-2007 (R)
  DVD: 26-Jun-2007

  18-May-2007 (15)
  DVD: 17-Sep-2007


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