Such an unfortunate title for this interesting movie about kindred spirits on a slow, low rumble to personal salvation. Yet for Memphis-bred filmmaker Craig Brewer
, Black Snake Moan represents more than your conventional character study. It is a suspension bridge stretched over the dreaded sophomore slump that swallows far too many promising young directors these days.
Brewer’s debut feature Hustle and Flow took open-minded viewers on a realistic foray into the world of do-it-yourself hip-hop, proving how hard life can be out there for a pimp (unless, of course, you are a member of Three Six Mafia on Oscar night). Moan continues to bathe in Tennessee hardship and failure as it alternately convinces us that life isn't much easier for backwoods Southern skanks and the men they love but who done them wrong. Article continues below
Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson
) has just conducted a hurtful, and very public, falling out with his wife, who was cheating on him with his brother. He has nothing to live for until fate guides him to the beaten, broken body of town floozie Rae (Christina Ricci
), left for dead on the side of the road. Lazarus asks a few questions of the right people to learn that Rae has a touch of the "sickness" -- abused as a child, she now turns her body over to any man that pays a bit of attention. Blessed with the knowledge, this old blues man makes it his mission to heal Rae's damaged soul.
Lazarus' offbeat intervention is at times sweet but predominantly shocking. His method, lifted straight out of a 1970s pulp magazine, involves a massive chain (with links the size of your fist) and a stubborn radiator. The crux of Moan comes down to a test of wills -- it's like breaking a mule, only the obstinate beast of burden is wearing soiled panties and a T-shirt so far off the shoulder it reveals her gaunt waistline.
Brewer's leads are up to the task at hand. Ricci is virtually unrecognizable save for those trademark saucer-wide eyes. Cat-scratch fever is a difficult sickness to project without overacting: The actress manages dangerous but struggles with sultry, a state of being that's pivotal to the part of Rae. Jackson finds the forceful demeanor of a Baptist preacher, but balances the hysteria when Moan comes close to jumping its rails. Justin Timberlake
comes and goes as Rae's true love. He holds his own, but never has to go toe-to-toe with serious actors for too long.
Brewer's films will not appeal to everyone. These stories occupy grimy sections of our Dirty South, where wronged souls go to stay lost. Had Moan been Brewer's first film, I might have dismissed it as exploitative and inaccessible genre scrap that is blessed with powerful performances. But as in Flow, the director exhibits extreme control over his hothouse situations, and finds kindness in the bawdiness of life. His music choice once again enhances the natural atmosphere -- blues, rock, and spirituals for a sweaty, dirty Dixie shoot -- and his camera work mirrors designs by comic and graphic-novel artists. If you hunger for something off the safe, mainstream path, let Moan bewitch you with its unusual healing process.