Black Snake Moan doesn’t begin to hide its trash origins; in fact, it embraces them. But the movie gets at something, and it does so far more effectively than a lot of higher-toned movies.
The movie’s premise at first seems hopeless. Rae (Christina Ricci) is an outrageous nymphomaniac. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a broken-down blues singer whose wife has just left him. One day, Lazarus finds Rae at the side of a road near his home, beaten and near death. He goes to town to get some medicine for Rae and finds out about her seedy reputation. Out of nowhere, Lazarus divines a cure for what ails Rae: He chains Rae to the radiator in his front room and, in essence, says that she won’t be released until her demons are expunged.
That premise alone is going to elicit at least two reactions from the movie’s potential audience. Feminists will carp about an older man passive-aggressively chaining up a woman because he thinks it’s for her own good. Then there are the lascivious men in the audience who will lick their lips and say, “Ooh, man! Christina Ricci in bondage!”
But surprisingly, once the movie gets past its sweaty, Southern Gothic beginning, the characters really start to unveil some interesting layers. Ricci takes what could have been a simple, tacky role and gives it some genuine depth. Her take on Rae reminds me of Jodie Foster in The Accused — showing a woman’s vulnerability in the face of her supposed worldliness and sexual voraciousness.
And Jackson, after sleepwalking through Snakes on a Plane, once again twitches with electricity. It’s as if his Bible-spouting hitman from Pulp Fiction suddenly got a mirror stuck in his face to show him that he has a few of his own demons to conquer.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Justin Timberlake is very effective as Rae’s erstwhile lover. “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson is a sunny presence throughout, providing some joy to counter Jackson’s gravitas. And John Cothran Jr. takes a stereotypical role — a very preachy preacher — and turns it inside out. The scene where his character explains his concept of heaven is a metaphor for all of the movie’s characters — cutting through the guff and getting to what really matters.
At its center, Black Snake Moan is about an old codger condescending to save a young girl’s soul and realizing how much cleansing his own soul needs. The movie might not be as spirited as a homecoming revival, but it certainly is a blessed tonic to more pretentious movies with similar themes.