Movie Review: Black Snake Moan

Last night’s hot time in the old town would have been limited to blogging about Wonder Woman and going to bed at 9:30 if it hadn’t been for a chance Google Chat encounter with Movie Buddy Numero Uno — Melissa — who was itching to get out of her apartment after a rough week of grad school homework and had just found out that Black Snake Moan was playing at the Greentree 10 for $1.50.


We hit the 9:45 show. I got there first and bought my ticket with six quarters. (You’ve gotta love that.) There was a married couple in front of me with a daughter. The father asked the ticket seller guy, “What’s the age range on your ticket prices?”

“Anybody under 12 months is free, all others are $1.50.”

The man pointed at his daughter and said quite incredulously, “She’s 11.”

Not 11 months old, mind you, but 11 years old.

“Then it would be $1.50,” said ticket seller guy.

The man was not happy with this, but reluctantly paid $1.50 for his daughter’s ticket anyway. Charming.

Melissa showed up shortly after that, and as always she had a great story.

“I was going to count out my change in the car, but the teenagers in the car beside me were making out and it was creeping me out. At first it looked he was hitting her, and then it looked like he was kissing her. I might have been seeing things.”

A pause, and then, “I hope my car’s okay.”

With tickets in hand we went in to find seats, remembering, of course, the dangers that come with going to the dollar movie. So we chose aisle seats, since teenagers are probably more likely not to make babies in the seats closest to other patrons and the aisle. Probably.

The normal batch of trailers was once again preceded by Cinemark’s very classy FirstLook feature that replaces the typical pre-movie ads and inane trivia quizzes with relatively in-depth previews of upcoming films and television shows. (One of the coming attractions previewed was Surf’s Up, prompting Melissa to comment that she’s “so done with penguin movies.”) We also got to see Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale talking about their upcoming hotel thriller, Vacancy. (I wouldn’t pay eight bucks for it, but it looks like a fun rental.)

A few trailers later (including one for Disturbia, which I hope to see tonight), Black Snake Moan began.

The film was written and directed by Craig Brewer, who did the same double duty on the critically acclaimed Hustle & Flow. It’s kind of like a trashy, southern version of Lost in Translation, only the two souls here are far more lost and broken than Bill and Scarlett.

Samuel L. Jackson is Lazarus, an aging blues singer who thinks his glory days are decades behind him. You might think so, too, if your wife left you for your flashy younger brother. Both wife and brother separately try to make peace with Lazarus before moving on to their new life together, but the negotiations don’t exactly go as planned. Hurt and humiliated, Lazarus just wants to hole up in his isolated rural home and leave the rest of the world behind.

And then there’s Rae, played to the hilt by one of my favorite actresses, Christina Ricci. (It’s a long list. I know.) When her boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), heads out for military service, she’s left to try to fight “the itch.” For as long as she’s been alive, Rae has been brutally abused. Physically, sexually, emotionally, you name it. Now she’s locked in an abusive sexual cycle where she’s gotta have it, and Ronnie is the first man she’s ever known who loves her for who she is, doesn’t judge her or think less of her, and truly wants to make a good, honest life with her. When he has to go away she snaps, sinking into her most dangerous cycle of destructive behavior yet. The result is that she gets beaten to within an inch of her life and thrown out of a truck on an old deserted country road.

She’s discovered by Lazarus, who takes her inside and makes it his mission to nurse this tiny broken stranger back to health. When he soon realizes that her wounds go far deeper than just the bruises on her face, he decides to take it upon himself to cure her, to show her that she’s worth something, and maybe to save even himself in the process. This, of course, involves chaining her up in his living room.

It sounds creepy, but it’s not. (Well, it kind of is. Just not in the way you might be thinking.) His intentions are totally pure, and remain so. He just wants to help her, and doing so is truly the only thing he’s got left. (Of course, as the film goes on, he realizes that maybe he’s got some things to live for after all. One of which is his music and another is the town’s pharmacist, played to sweet perfection by venerable character actress S. Epatha Merkerson.)

There are unexpected twists and turns that create some true suspense in the latter half of the film.

Jackson and Ricci couldn’t be better here; Jackson loses himself in Lazarus, and the only thing recognizable about Ricci is her big, beautiful brown eyes. Jackson also gets to literally sing the blues, and when he does he’s totally the real deal. Ricci will break your heart in half as she struggles against the only nature she’s ever known. She’s fearless here, and mesmerizing as always.

Big points also go to Timberlake. The best thing you can say for an actor in a part is that you truly believed they were someone else, and the always confident Timberlake we’ve all seen in music videos and on awards shows is nowhere to be found here. Ronnie is a prisoner of his own paralyzing insecurities, and Timberlake sells that just as ably as he sells the against-all-odds love Ronnie truly feels for Rae.

Also noteworthy is John Cothran, Jr. as R.L., the town reverend. He cares about everybody in this movie, and what makes the character so great is that he doesn’t preach or talk down to anybody. He just talks to them. And he listens. It’s a beautiful performance; Cothran almost walks away with every scene he’s in and gave what was probably my favorite performance in the film.

Black Snake Moan was a lot different (and a lot better) than the dark, disturbing movie I was expecting. That being said, it’s no less dramatic. This a beautiful, moving piece of work with just the right amount of humor, some truly painful drama and a whole lot of heart and hope.