BLACK SNAKE MOAN tussled up a good deal of praise and no little amount of controversy in 2006. Cheers and salutes came from those taken with the deceptively pulpy story, the daring performances and bracing atmosphere conjured by writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle And Flow). The WTF!? gasps and sneers were issued by those self-appointed morality guardians unable to see beyond their finger-wagging agendas. Outrageous, painful, provocative, sweaty, sexy, funny, tragic; even those offended by the premise were forced to unsqueeze enough to acknowledge the high-powered acting and music.
“God put you in my path and I aim to cure you of your wicked ways.”
Rural Tennessee. When her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) heads off to the Army, self-destructive white-trash pass-around ‘Rae’ (Christina Ricci), driven by inner tension that manifests itself with sexual abandon, goes on a booze, drug & itch-scratching tear. Rae’s romp ends in an assault that leaves her dumped on a country road: battered, half-naked and barely alive. She’s found by vegetable farmer ‘Lazarus’ (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues-man, abandoned by his two-timing wife, and trying to make his own demons right by the Lord. Lazarus nurses the unruly (to put it mildly) girl back to physical health—and does so in a patently unorthodox fashion (that had the diss-division howl with indignation), but curing her soul anguish—and his— will take some doin’. This calls for the Blues.
Jackson delivers like a man possessed: he spent months learning to play the guitar, and gets to unload with lived-thru-it brio in several numbers; the rest of the soundtrack is likewise an all-quality gig. The oddly unheralded Ricci is flat-out sensational, raw and gutsy, a portrait of wanton lust, deep-seated hurt and neglected decency as honest as any other higher-profile actress you could pick could hope to provide. Hot? Is the Sun?
Brewer’s script is profane and truth-infused, his direction frank, his torrid capture of place, attitude and racial and class divides (and shared misery) unsparing. Filmed in and around Stanton, Tennessee, with camerawork from Amy Vincent (Eve’s Bayou) that soaks in the heat, of all sorts. The knee-jerk naysayer reviews that took Brewer and the story to task for what they saw as exploitation couldn’t see past Ricci’s body (I’ll take the 5th), casually overlooking that perhaps actors as smart and committed as Jackson and Ricci just might have been keen enough to detect more in the script than a paycheck. As per usual, the p.c. bleaters couldn’t recognize actual exploitation if it chained them naked to a radiator. *
Made for $15,000,000, the grosses only came to $10,907,485, but it’s guaranteed a long-life as a cult fave. With up-to-the-mark supporting work from a surprisingly good Timberlake, plus John Cothran Jr. (the course-steadying reverend), S. Epatha Merkersen (kindly pharmacy lady who fancies Lazarus), Michael Raymond James (scumbag at large), Kim Richards (dead-to-rights as Rae’s worth-absent Mama), David Banner (thuggin’), Adriane Lenox and Clare Grant. 116 minutes.
* Fierce in her literally full-bodied work on the project, the spark-generating leading lady was equally adamant about how it was marketed. Ricci: “The way that movie was marketed was probably one of the most disappointing and upsetting things that’s ever happened to me in my career. I have no interest in exploiting women any further than they’ve already been exploited…All they [marketing bosses] cared about was college-age boys going to see it.”