Black Snake Moan (Paramount Vantage, R)

film_blacksnake_smRicci channels every lost little skank anyone's ever known. She's hurt, sexy, lonely, scared, and a tiny bit scary—often all at once. If you didn't know better, you'd easily swear that Rae lived on sex and booze alone.

 

 

 

 

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Running wild isn't for everyone, but the people who take to it usually have a hard time giving it up. Rae (Christina Ricci) is one of those people. As a young, tangled mess of drinking, smoking, pill-popping, and screwing, Rae is about to get a lesson she never expected.

After seeing her anxiety-prone boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) off to war, Rae has a day of unbridled action that lands her half-naked, beaten, unconscious, and abandoned on a gravel road leading to a stranger's farm. The stranger is Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former bluesman with a newly broken heart. He takes Rae, coughing and feverish, into his home with the intent of nursing her back to health.

He asks around, though, and finds out how she's been living (after surviving her attempt at molesting him). He decides someone should set Rae straight, and figures he's just the person to do it. Even if that means keeping Rae after she's ready to leave.

Writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) has made Black Snake Moan one of the most original stories about sex, religion, and redemption ever filmed. What's best is that it's not just another nympho-chained-to-the-radiator exploitation movie. The world of the film feels fully lived in, and everyone who inhabits this small Southern town seems to have real lives filled with real pain and joy.

Lazarus isn't just a one-note device used to foster Rae's salvation. He's no saint, but Lazarus wants to get both of their lives back on track, and to stay on God's good side while doing so. And Rae has reasons for being the town tramp. As her time with Lazarus begins to have an effect, it becomes clear that her whoring goes deeper than anybody other than Ronnie bothered to wonder about. The audience is given a glimpse into the characters' pasts, and understands their desperation all the better for it.

For the second time now, Brewer has shown the world a view of Tennessee that's shabby and tough. Everything looks like it was "rode hard and put away wet," albeit often with love. And there's a thin line of hope woven through the story that comes close to breaking.

Jackson and Ricci appear particularly well made for their roles. I can imagine that these are the people they would have actually become, had their lives gone differently. Jackson's bluesy farmer has ache and anger written all over his face, and stamped onto every move he makes.

No one will regret hearing Jackson sing, either. His natural voice is perfectly suited for the throbbing frustrations of blues music. Ricci channels every lost little skank anyone's ever known. She's hurt, sexy, lonely, scared, and a tiny bit scary—often all at once. If you didn't know better, you'd easily swear that Rae lived on sex and booze alone.

Timberlake has been trying to establish himself as an actor for a couple of years now, and I believe this small role as Ronnie shows his work is starting to pay off. Ronnie is a shaky, sweaty jumble of fear. Even when he tries to be hard-hitting, he just can't hold onto it for very long. If Timberlake keeps working this way, he'll become worthy of a leading role sooner rather than later. | Adrienne Jones

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