I didn’t love “Hustle and Flow”, writer – director Craig Brewer’s last film, but I liked it. I just wasn’t won over by the story of a pimp who wants to become a rapper. If there’s anything we learned from the film its “Don’t you know it’s hard out there for a pimp”.
So when I first heard about “Black Snake Moan”, Brewer’s follow-up, I was not excited. Then I started to really pay attention to the previews and the images. Okay, this is going to be one strange movie and sometimes strange movies are beautiful because they have a license to go places we don’t expect. “Black Snake Moan” is all of these things; strange, beautiful and also contains great performances from Jackson (one of his best) and Ricci (certainly her best).
The first thing “Black Snake” does is set up the two main characters, establishing their lives, before they meet. This may sound like a given, but Brewer spends a significant amount of time showing the despair each person has in their lives, for different reasons, giving us a chance to get to know each of them.
Rae (Ricci) begs her boyfriend Ronnie, (Justin Timberlake) to not go to Basic Training. But he has to go; this is the only way they are ever going to escape the trailer park they live in and have a chance to escape their white trash roots. She runs after the truck in her daisy dukes and oversize flannel shirt and then drops to the ground, crying. As soon as he is gone, she gets the ‘itch’, something she is only occasionally able to control. This time, she won’t be able to control it. She calls up the local small time drug dealer, a black man, and they are soon going at it in a seedy motel room. Later, she attends a large party, wearing the same daisy dukes and a cut off t-shirt bearing the Confederate flag (really just a strip of cloth making a valiant effort to cover her breasts, frequently giving up the fight) and tries to hook up. With anyone and everyone. Unable to find someone, she takes some pills and before you can whistle Dixie, she is running around in her panties and a football guard playing a game of football with some friends. Before you know it, she is having sex on the lawn, amid hundreds of used plastic cups. Later, she ends up with a bloody nose on the dirt road outside of Lazarus’ small farm.
Lazarus (Jackson) has troubles of his own. A former Blues musician, he learns his wife has been cheating on him with his brother. She wants to leave, but his brother won’t leave without his blessing. Lazarus shows great restraint in a confrontation between them. The local preacher, a childhood friend, tries to offer him guidance, but Lazarus won’t have any of it. Returning home drunk, he throws all of his wife’s possessions into a garbage bag before passing out. The next morning, he takes the garbage bags out to the trash and spots the young girl. He soon realizes she is hurt and tries to figure out what to do. If he calls for help, he will be immediately blamed and may end up in jail. He decides to take her in and help her. He visits the local pharmacist, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson, TV’s “Law and Order”) and she gives him some cough medicine for ‘his niece’s’ cough.
Fading in and out of consciousness, Lazarus helps her get rid of her cough and tries to help with the black eye and the cuts and bruises. In a moment of lucidity, she attacks Lazarus, trying to tame her ‘itch’ and have sex with him, leading him to find out about her nymphomania. In order to control her, he chains her to the radiator.
When she comes to, wearing her panties and t-shirt, she assumes something happened, but he assures her it didn’t. Well, if he wants to, he can, as long as he lets her go. He won’t have any of it. He has to help her.
This only begins to scratch the surface of “Black Snake Moan”. Because the film is basically about these two characters, and we spend a significant amount of time with them, we learn a lot about each. But it is a testament to each actor that these moments of knowledge come through their performances, one of Jackon’s best and certainly Ricci’s best to date.
Christina Ricci deserves a lot of credit for the simple rawness of the performance. There aren’t many actresses that would take on this type of role, let alone abandon themselves to the character. Rae is half nude throughout most of the film. Naturally, this character, a woman so loose with her sexuality, so promiscuous, would find nudity a natural thing. And the character does bare her breasts a few times. She also has sex with more than one person. But all of these images are presented in a very matter-of-fact way and illustrate the character’s soullessness. When she meets Lazarus and he starts to care for her, this behavior stops, because he won’t allow it. Gradually, as she realizes he cares for her, she starts to listen to him. She doesn’t change completely, or quickly, making the character seem all the more natural.
This performance is very raw and fitting for the character. Ricci seems to give everything she has to the role, making it a memorable, vibrant performance. When she starts to change, we have lived part of the journey with her and we feel as though we have changed with her.
Samuel L. Jackson also seems to lose in the role of Lazarus. Every time we go to a movie, we may recognize the actors playing the role. Not surprisingly, the less famous an actor, the more easily they ‘become’ the character they are playing because we are more likely to forget they are an actor playing a role. Samuel L. Jackson has made many films, many of those very popular, so he is very recognizable. An established actor always has more difficulty disappearing into the character. But Jackson seems to disappear into this character for large stretches of time, allowing me to forget I was watching the famous actor who has also appeared in “Pulp Fiction “, “Snakes on a Plane” and many others. The fact that he can fully immerse himself into the character at all speaks to his ability to make this character seem real.
From the moment we first meet him, we experience some of the troubles Lazarus has with his community, with his wife, with his life. When he finds Ricci on the dirt road, he has to help her. But he has to be cautious. It wouldn’t look good for an aging black man to be seen with a half naked white woman, let alone one who has been beaten up. So he looks both ways, to make sure no one is watching and takes her inside.
The more involved he gets in her recovery, the more we realize he needed such a ‘project’ to give meaning to his life. This also brings him into contact with the pharmacist, a woman who clearly has a little ‘itch’ of her own for the aging Blues singer. Throughout the course of the story, Lazarus heals through his interactions with the young lady and may be able to get his life back on track after all.
Justin Timberlake is also good as, Ricci’s boyfriend. Going beyond stunt casting, he actually shows he has some acting chops as he makes the character’s difficulties real and substantive.
“Black Snake Moan” is a simply made film. The action centers at Lazarus’ small farm in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally, he goes into town or other characters come out to the farm and interact with him, but I can’t imagine this film cost a lot of money to make. Which makes sense because I am pretty sure if the budget for this film were too high, it never would have been made.
I’m glad “Black Snake Moan” was made, because it contains two great performances, introducing us to characters we have never seen before, and likely are not to see often again. It is also a believable, well-made tale of redemption for two people who need to have some meaning in their lives.
This strange film is, at times, quite a beautiful film.