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Black Snake Moan (2007)

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[rating:4]
Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake

There are people who hear a blues song and scoff at the over-the-top anguish, at the cheatin’ no-good women and the broken hearts and the shotguns. The music isn’t Top 40 and the lyrics aren’t like their lives, or the lives of anyone they know, and anyway, “American Idol” is on.

Those people should not go see “Black Snake Moan.” They will not get it, and they’ll hate it, except for the tingly dirty feeling they got from seeing a half-naked, trashy-hot Christina Ricci chained to a radiator.

Then there are people who hear, say, a lyric about goin’ to that red house over yonder to shoot a faithless woman, and they recognize the impotent rage, the idea of a hurt so bad you want to destroy everything, your own life included. They’ve probably never felt a murderous rage for more than two blinding seconds, but they recognize in the extremities of emotion something familiar and true. These people will like “Black Snake Moan.” They’ll recognize it as a heartfelt meditation on pain and healing that is not afraid of the overheated situation or the grandiose gesture.

Writer-Director Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) creates a movie that is itself a blues song — a film as stark, as violent, lost, sexually charged and, at its core, as damaged and vulnerable and plaintive as anything Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson ever recorded.

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Samuel L. Jackson is Lazarus, a rural Tennessee farmer whose wife has just run off with his own brother. “I don’t love you anymore,” she tells him in their final encounter. As Rae, Christina Ricci is a, no point in beating around the bush, a slut. The moment her boyfriend — Justin Timberlake — ships out with the National Guard, she’s overcome by a sexual itch of overpowering proportion: Horniness as demonic possession. When that gets her beaten and doped to the edge of coma practically on Jackson’s doorstep, the broken old man employs some, um, unconventional tough love in an attempt to heal the battered young woman. Violence, vigorous debate and some ferocious blues music (much performed by Jackson himself) ensues, and when things reach a boiling point at the end of a gun, it’s really unclear which way the story is gonna go — this is the blues, after all.

The cast, it must be said, is amazing. Jackson is always great, and Ricci is stunning as Rae — a vulnerable, lost girl and a feral animal all at once. Though the background of the film includes some known TV and film actors, you’d think the production just set itself up in a backwater Tennessee town and cast locals, they’re so perfectly on-target. Even Timberlake, who is surely the weakest link in the film, turns in a solid performance.

When the film’s dominant image is a beaten girl in her underwear on the end of a thick length of chain, you have to be able to take the story on a literal and metaphoric level. If the plot hook strikes you as inherently too overblown, too grindhouse, too comic book, then stay away. If you think that heightened storytelling can yield truth, this note-perfect film will reward you. To call the bondage and the interracial sexual frisson a plot hook is pretty accurate, because if it really is just a lure — if you come to this movie looking for cheap thrills, you’ll be disappointed. Brewer not only fails to exploit the lurid sexual opportunities in Ricci’s character and predicament, he analyzes without objectification the background of childhood sexual abuse that make Rae the town tramp she is. Her unrestrained and self-destructive sexuality comes across as a pathology, every bit the disease Jackson sees it as.

One scene is quietly representative of the film’s amazing balance between theatrical setups and brilliant delivery. Ricci and Timberlake sit on a sofa being counseled by an earnest minister who is Jackson’s best friend. The dialogue and mannerisms of the couple and the counselor immediately remind the audience of Dr. Phil and other television parodies, and there is nervous laughter all around — should this be funny? The actors play it straight, and by the time a tear rolls down Ricci’s cheek, the audience is in the palm of her hand and the outsized situation has been brought right down to earth.

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The drawbacks of the film are still a pleasure — one is the use of two real clips of blues legend Son House expounding on the nature of the blues, in terms that thematically link with the portion of the story that follows. They’re unnecessary and distracting, but, good god, it’s Son House giving you a lesson in the blues, so shaddup, already. The only place the story itself seems to go wrong is when Rae, having made a few steps toward self-discovery, encounters her estranged mother. It seems too soon for the girl to be at this point, but the director — and Ricci — make it work.

The subtle direction and editing are top-notch if you’re inclined to pay attention. The music is great. The theme is universal. The cast is fantastic. The mix of perfectly acted small moments — Ricci shy but still wary in a new dress — and iconic moments suited to a blues song — Jackson growling electric blues against the backdrop of a thunderstorm — mix effortlessly. The film writhes like the serpent of its title, a constant surprise and joy.