Black Snake Moan
Written and directed by Craig Brewer

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci


Black Snake Moan

My friend Frank Delaney, the blues musician, tells me that "Black Snake" was a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues, and in "Black Snake Moan" Samuel L. Jackson sings it, quite well actually, along with a couple of other blues. The film itself is a strange piece of writing and directing by Craig Brewer, who also wrote and directed "Hustle and Flow" two years ago. The film is two parallel stories that come together early on. Somewhere in Mississippi or Tennessee, and I don't believe the film is quite specific about location, Jackson, named Lazarus here, is a blues singer and guitarist whose life has gone to hell since his wife left him for his younger brother. He's substituted drinking for playing and now he just raises market vegetables at his isolated little farm.

At the same time, a young white couple, Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) are parting because he's joining the army. But Rae has some problems too; she is insatiable sexually, and finds men to help her deal with it, one of whom - Ronnie's best friend, actually - beats her and leaves her on the side of the road, where Lazarus finds her and makes it his mission to help her get well in every way. In fact he chains her to the radiator so she can't get away.

The film is the story of how each of them finds a way to get help, and help the other; much of it is predictable, some of it is repetitious, some is clichéd, but there are moments when the unexpected occurs and we are taken aback by some sudden power in the film. Perhaps the weak link is Timberlake's character, who suffers from panic attacks at moments of crisis, but there's no backstory to help explain them; they just happen. We saw that he is a good actor in his last film, "Alpha Dog," but he isn't given much to work with here in "Black Snake Moan."

On the other hand, Jackson has foregone the mannerisms and shtick that have marred his recent work, and gives a very spontaneous performance here that holds the film together. And Ricci, who's always a brave and adventurous actor, willing to try anything for the sake of her films, is clinically accurate in her portrait of what happens to abused children when they grow up. But for some reason she's needlessly kept here in her underwear for half the film. Somehow it takes Jackson an hour of film time to get her some clothes to wear.

Brewer's camera work and editing here are pedestrian at best, but there are compensations, particularly the excellent John Cothran, as Lazarus's boyhood friend who's now a preacher and becomes involved in the story.

In many ways "Black Snake Moan" is a mess, but it is also a brave piece of work by good actors at the top of their form.