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"BLACK SNAKE MOAN"
(2007) (Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: When a farmer finds a young white woman beaten and unconscious, he sets out to save her from herself, by chaining her to his radiator so she must stop seeking solace in sex with strangers.
PLOT:
Upset when his wife leaves him, Lazarus (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) starts to drink heavily and literally sing the blues. But his sense of abandonment is nothing compared to Rae's (CHRISTINA RICCI), who is devastated when her National Guardsman boyfriend Ronnie (JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE) leaves for training, en route to Iraq. Though he says he's enlisted in order to secure their future, she fears he'll never come back. Worse, Rae suffers from a severe form of nymphomania, because (shadowy flashbacks insinuate) she was abused as a child. Now, when Rae is upset, she begins to shudder and moan, then seeks out the nearest man in order to have sex. While she has a regular tryst set up with Tehronne (DAVID BANNER), she runs into trouble when she meets a group of young men at a bar and drinks herself into oblivion. After they have sex with her on a football field, she gets a ride home from Ronnie's best friend Gill (MICHAEL RAYMOND JAMES), who beats her unconscious and leaves her on the road to die.

This is where Lazarus' and Rae's paths cross. He finds her the next morning at the end of his driveway, takes her inside, and decides to "cure" her. As she's unable to control her sexual urges, he reasons, her range of motion must be limited. And so Lazarus chains her to his radiator. Their time together -- several days -- involves fierce arguments, Rae's attempted escapes, some medicine (Lazarus gets a syrup from the local pharmacy, and flirts with Angela [S. EPATHA MERKERSON]), and Lazarus' singing. One night he takes her to a blues club where he performs and she drinks and dances very lewdly. Still, she's among people who mean her no harm, and so she comes to trust Lazarus, even to love him as a kind of father figure.

Ronnie comes home early, when the military discharges him (he has his own illness, meaning that he has panic attacks). Upon hearing that Rae has been abused and then, that she's living with a black man, he charges off in search of vengeance, against Gill and Lazarus.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
"Love makes you do things you don't wanna do." So pronounces an old bluesman at the start of "Black Snake Moan," which proceeds to take up this theme with a vengeance. Though no one in the movie is precisely in love, most everyone is in a terrible state, lusting or raging after someone else (or maybe just a dream of someone else), and so doing all kinds of things they don't want to do.

Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) first appear engaged in sweaty, desperate-looking sex. Neither looks especially happy about it as he's a National Guardsman about to ship off to Iraq and she's dead set against it. Though he insists he's doing it "for us," supporting the girl he wants to marry, she's feeling abandoned even before he goes.

As she sucks on a post-coital cigarette, he dons his fatigues. Cut to the next moment, in which Ronnie's own anxiety bears down upon him. He spends his last precious moments at home with his head in the toilet, puking. She pats his back and worries.

Ronnie's departure occasions the first indication of Rae's own "sickness." This would be her wholly uncontrollable nymphomania, an awkwardly metaphorical condition that allows for some very tedious clichés, most involving Rae's naked, bloodied, and bleakly skinny body.

After trotting a few steps after the pickup truck that's bearing her Ronnie away, she drops to her knees, crying and writhing in the grass. Her pain is literal, yes, but also irksomely "sexed up" in a most unimaginative way, that is, miniskirt and Confederate flag insignia on her cut-off t-shirt. The girl is all about poverty -- of psyche and spirit as much as property.

It's not exactly love that leads her into paroxysms of desperate, essentially unconscious desire, but it manifests as a need for physical intimacy, or perhaps better, collision. The movie accords her a bit of hackneyed psychodrama as motivation: a recurring flashback to a blurry male menace. Predictably, given her generic white-trashiness, Rae's assailant is her stepfather, and apparently, she seeks to repeat this trauma with her many faceless partners.

Once Ronnie's gone, Rae's illness extends to a regular partner named Tehronne (hip-hop artist David Banner). Offered up as a sign of Rae's self-hatred, their assignations appear in fragments, aggressive doggy-style sex, indicating what you already know, that she is abject when in the throes of her illness.

Still, she needs just a little more impetus to attain her rock-bottom. And so Rae puts on her miniskirt and cowboy boots, then sashays into town. Thee, she drinks beer, smokes pot, and pops some pills before hooking up with a few gnarly white guys, one of whom beats her senseless before he dumps her by the side of the road.

Thus begins Rae's last best chance at redemption, embodied by the obviously named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). Though he's got his own issues (his first words in the film, concerning the wife who's leaving him, are, "I never laid a hand on her in anger"), Lazarus is a righteous bluesman, dedicated to his art even if he is mad at the heartbreaking turns that inspire it. This character detail allows Jackson to lean over a guitar and make earnest music, but Lazarus remains what you think he is: a weary hustler in search of an honorable cause, a movie character about to be redeemed by his own good work.

Though he's startled to find this cause at the end of his driveway, he's moved to save her, depositing her on his sofa so she can sleep away her fever, with the help of some syrup he sweet-talks out of most wondrous drugstore clerk Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson). What he doesn't tell Angela -- or anyone else for that matter -- is his solution to Rae's ailment, or, as he puts it to her, "the hold the devil's got on you" and "God seen fit to put you in my path and I am to cure you from your wickedness."

That Lazarus' means to this end is a big old chain around her waist is not a little distressing. However much Craig Brewer believes that he is only transposing his own "need to be snapped back" onto a fictional girl, the fact is that this fiction has a history and lots of contexts.

The chain is huge and heavy on Rae's waist, thudding on the wood floor as she tests its strength and wonders at Lazarus' nerve. Bolting outside, she runs just far enough so that her stop is spectacular. The chain clanks, the dust flies, and her body appears brutalized by this length of hardware. Her defiance rendered ludicrous, scrawny Rae is reduced at last to understanding how deeply she needs help.

Both a promise and threat, Rae is a perfect cultural product and an alarming caricature. Left alone for just a moment, she assaults a neighbor boy named Lincoln (Neimus K. Williams), who's partly appalled and partly thrilled by this lucky loss of his virginity.

Lazarus interrupts, sympathetic to young Lincoln's poor judgment ("Not your fault," he says, blaming instead the "girl in heat"). Though she looks pale and bruised splayed on his floor, and though his best friend the Reverend (John Cothran) suggests that chaining a white girl is not a great idea, Lazarus persists (he observes that he can't turn her over to authorities: "I've been toe to toe with the police in this town just for being black and nearby").

Somehow this angry black man will save himself in saving the white girl. Recommitted to that effort, Lazarus tells Tehronne to back off ("That girl's in my family"), feeds her corn on the cob from his own field, and buys her a pretty dress (he asks the clerk for something that makes "a woman feel like a woman and not look like a hussy or a floozy," because, of course, these are the only options for women's dresses). He also washes Rae in the tub and soothes her after a showdown with her unreservedly mean mother (who tells Rae outright that she's sorry she had her), and perhaps most important, he sings the blues for her.

The blues is the film's richest vein, and Lazarus' performances are sincerely and effectively aching. It may be that the repeated image of Rae chained up represents another sort of pain, but her cliché is granted no deconstruction, only reinforcement. Much as Lincoln is excited by the girl on a chain, his reaction is a function of his limits. He can't see beyond his immediate, physical experience. But that doesn't mean you can't. "Black Snake Moan" rates as a 4 out of 10. (C. Fuchs)




Reviewed February 26, 2007 / Posted March 2, 2007


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