(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips. Directed by Craig Brewer
Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.
Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.
Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.
Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.
The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.
He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.
There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.
Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far.
This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.
I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.
There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.
Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive. Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?
WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music. Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.
FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.
FINAL RATING: 8/10