2007-03-23 / Columnists

MovieScope

Review By Robert Snyder

Review By Robert Snyder

'Black Snake Moan' - Southern Discomfort

What's with actor Samuel L. Jackson and snakes?

Last year, he starred in the much Internet-hyped "Snakes on a Plane." Now, he's smoldering on the silver screen in "Black Snake Moan." The latter movie at first glance appears to be exploitation with ads showing a naked white girl in chains hugging the leg of a guitar-playing black man. In fact, the former "Snakes" film is closer to the schlock category.

Written and directed by Craig Brewer ("Hustle and Flow"), "Black Snake Moan" wants real hard to be art. Thanks to Jackson as Bible-spouting bluesman Lazarus, or Laz, it almost succeeds. Clearly wallowing in the steamy Deep South of playwright Tennessee Williams, "Moan" is a parable of sexual redemption that falls short of the great author's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or "Baby Doll"... but not that far.

The waif wearing next to nothing is actress Christina Ricci, who is about as far away from her child roles in "The Addams Family" or "Casper" as she could be. She was moving toward this cutting-edge character of Rae, the abused child-turned-nymphomaniac, in such movies as "Buffalo '66" and Charlize Theron Oscar winner "Monster." Rae is the ultimate wild woman, possessed of a sexual itch that goes ballistic when boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is not around to satisfy it. As "Moan" opens, Ronnie, who suffers a bizarre nervous disorder himself, heads off to the National Guard for deployment in Iraq.

Meanwhile, across the Tennessee backwoods, vegetable gardener-guitarist Lazarus is tearing up his ex-wife's rose garden because she just dumped him after 12 years of marriage to go off with his brother. After a night of booze, drugs, sex and abuse, Rae is dropped beaten, unconscious and chronically coughing on the road outside Laz's farm.

What's a good-hearted middle-aged African-American man to do in the Deep South? Reality would dictate that he call the police and an attorney. But in Craig Brewer's world, it's pick up the white girl in her underwear and chain her to a radiator for a few days of intense God-fearing therapy.

That's the basic dynamic of the movie, which is sure to be spoofed in a Wayans Brothers' film (TV's "Saturday Night Live" has already done its dig). Fortunately, Ricci and Jackson keep their tongues in check and in cheek, although the writer/director may not have intended it. This is the real salvation in "Moan."

The healing sessions culminate in Laz pulling out his guitar and getting back to his blues. Which may be why Jackson did this movie in the first place, because his strumming and singing is impressive. However, it's not as impressive as the real thing by Blind Lemon Jefferson, R.L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill on the soundtrack. Also, the great Son House steals the show in black-and-white archival clips inserted throughout the film.

While "Black Snake Moan" may not make it as a classic Southern drama, it is worth seeing, or hearing, for the powerful music, which would be hard for any filmmaker to match.

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