Film-Forward Review: [BLACK SNAKE MOAN]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) &
Rae (Christina Ricci)
Photo: Bruce Talamon

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Written & Directed by: Craig Brewer.
Produced by: John Singleton & Stephanie Allain.
Director of Photography: Amelia Vincent.
Edited by: Billy Fox.
Music by: Scott Bomar.
Released by: Paramount Vantage.
Country of Origin: USA. 116 min. Rated R.
With: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran, David Banner & Michael Raymond-James.

The blues signify the characters’ inner turmoil in this flagrantly staged Southern potboiler, from the opening ghostly clip of the legendary Son House intoning “Ain’t but one kind of blues and that consisting between male and female what’s in love” to Memphis royalty tearing through Scott Bomar’s passionate score. A steamy flourish of pounding rhythm introduces two couples separately in crisis. Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, revealing more lost boy vulnerability than in Alpha Dog) are deep in the throes of goodbye sex before he ships out to the National Guard. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his wife are in the throes of a bitter goodbye. With their partners gone, Rae and Lazarus each indulge in destructive behavior. He knocks down his wife's garden, while Rae, who has a reputation for “a mess of crabs and STDs,” seeks out drug dealer Tehronne (muscled rapper David Banner in his movie debut) for rough sex, then on to drink, drugs, and more sex and brutality.

So far a very atmospheric, virtually segregated rural South just barely evolved into the 21st century, as in David Gordon Green’s Undertow. While writer/director Craig Brewster uses the same technical team he did in the urban Hustle & Flow, Amelia Vincent’s saturated cinematography of green woods and dark spaces recalls her beautiful evocation of another Southern landscape in Eve’s Bayou. But Brewster devours cultural references and spits them out.

Lazarus and Rae meet up almost at the crossroads. She’s been dumped in the middle of the road in front of his farm, barely wearing undies, a ripped T-shirt displaying U.S. and Confederate flags crossed with guns, and consumed by painful flashbacks of abuse triggered by a similarly decorated lighter. Rejected by her mother, Ricci’s Rae nakedly embodies Faulkner’s description of his classic slut Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, and the corn she hungrily chomps on ironically recalls the infamous corn cob rape in his notorious Sanctuary.

Lazarus rebuffs her seductions, learns more about her sexual obsessions, and attaches the film’s most outrageous and vivid symbol, a long chain, around her waist. This chain and how they use it intentionally recalls the powerful associations of slavery and prison gangs. It is first shocking, then amusing, and for Rae it becomes a fetish, then a totem, and finally a touchstone. There are numerous movies that have played on a man or woman controlled by another, The Taming of the Shrew, Swept Away, or Woman in the Dunes. But Lazarus is on a mission: “God see fit to put you in my path and I aim to cure you of your wickedness.” He conducts an exorcism, first curing her of her physical then spiritual fever, and on to his own as he’s still obsessing over his cheating wife.

A grizzled yet strong, independent man, Lazarus explains why he won’t contact the police: “Here alone with a beaten, half-naked white woman? I been toe to toe with the law in this town, for no more than being black and nearby.” So it is all the more jaw dropping when Rae again “goes crazy” and does with a young black neighbor what Emmett Till was falsely accused of even thinking. Racial stereotypes hover, but, until the conclusion, are turned upside down.

Patriarch Jim Dickinson’s boogie piano was in the background of Forty Shades of Blue, but he and his sons from the North Mississippi Allstars, with Cody’s fervent drumming and Luther’s blistering guitar, let loose a more raucous blues here. Charlie Musselwhite’s distinctive harmonica provides the leitmotif for Rae’s sexuality, especially her walk, and Ricci movingly straddles the abyss between lover and out of control victim that illustrates the pain of the blues. In addition to even more colorfully coarse synonyms for male and female genitalia than in Deadwood, blues song references are casually referenced throughout the dialog, such as the title.

Lazarus uses language redolent of both gospel songs and the civil rights movement in dealing with Rae. Religion is used in this culture in lieu of therapy, like in Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning, though that leads to a couple of conventional counseling scenes with Lazarus’ friend the Reverend R. L. (John Cothran) that are made amusing by his awkwardness in this odd situation.

However, stereotypes of black wisdom imparted to whites are not re-imagined enough, as the white woman gets comfortable in her own skin by giving herself over in slo-mo to the music and dancing by black folk. Lazarus gets in touch with his own inner demons, masterfully getting down and dirty Saturday night with his reunited blues band while gradually reaching out Sunday afternoon to S. Epatha Merkerson’s Angela. After the frequent thunder and lightning outdoors and turbulent confrontations indoors, all this Sturm und Drang melts into quiet romances for damaged souls who learn to express love and be loved. While sweet, the tenderness doesn’t match the emotional build-up.

The accuracy of the musical mise en scène is confirmed in Robert Mugge’s documentaries Last of the Mississippi Jukes, on blues survivors, and Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads, which features interviews and performances by soundtrack artists as R. L. Burnside (to whom this film is dedicated), Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough and Big Jack Johnson. Nora Lee Mandel
March 2, 2007



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us