Clad in a low-slung Confederate flag T-shirt and white cotton panties for most of Black Snake Moan, young Rae exudes feral sensuality as appalling as it is arousing.
Played by Christina Ricci, Rae isn’t the most forbidden fruit in this humid backwoods Tennessee drama that references blues and the Bible. It’s the temptation to write off filmmaker Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) as a deep-fried imitator of Quentin Tarantino.
Brewer can be equally flashy, superimposing his films’ titles on the screen ’70s style and stylishly tilting his camera at disorienting angles. Plus, consider the plot. An old, black former bluesman (Samuel L. Jackson) named Lazarus chains a promiscuous, young white woman to a radiator in his house to “cure her of her wickedness.” And, to wit, a dirty-innuendo title of Black Snake Moan.
Forget your grandparents. Would you want to see that?
Yes, because what sounds like an uncomfortable mix of skanky sex and racial tension is the year’s best film so far. (For the record, the title is shared by a blues tune Jackson sings in one of the movie’s best scenes.) Brewer blends spirituality and sexuality into a weirdly wonderful story rather than a tawdry package, and his performers bravely plumb all their characters’ problems.
Lazarus is his name, but he’ll gladly go Cain on his Abel brother, with whom his wife has stepped out. And, for the first time in years, anger and 12-letter curse words from Jackson’s mouth measure his character’s rage, not the actor’s persona. He’s a farming drunk prone to violent outbursts, no longer aware of a difference between spite and spirit and all out of love for anything but the blues.
Rae’s voracious appetite for impersonal sex is curbed only by the presence of her caring boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). Mere minutes after he leaves for National Guard training, her itch resurfaces, and she writhes in sexual surrender to a mental tune of rising locust chirps.
After one encounter leaves Rae beaten bloody and left for dead, Lazarus takes her into his home for recuperation. Rae eventually comes to, and he fends off her numerous fever-stricken advances toward him. To Lazarus, Rae’s affliction feels deeper than nymphomania, and, inspired to a new religious imperative, he begins a bizarre exorcise routine.
A chunky chain from Lazarus’ garden shed becomes Rae’s rusty chastity belt, and his long-forgotten blues music becomes her unlikely escape and release. From this crazy premise comes a simple dual solution — Rae channels her sexual urges into swaying her sweaty body in his songs’ beats and both characters find a soul’s replenishment in the ruminative lyrics.
Jackson impressively sings his own spit-flecked blues here, and the title-song bit feels like musical rapture. Buckets of rain pour outside, the power clips on and off. It’s a deafeningly amplified moment in a film with cranked sensory volume. But mention of Gilead’s balm isn’t for naught, and Moan then becomes a quiet, ensemble look at a small community of afflicted people.
It’s easy to forgive Jackson for films such as Basic with complex performances like this, where his chameleon quality makes him look every long hour of his 58 years. Even in her nastiest moments, Ricci never flinches as a character about whom we’re deeply conflicted. We hate her for how she defines one boy’s entire sexual future, but pull for her to find shelter in Ronnie’s heart.
Even Ronnie wrestles with a peculiar anxiety, a formerly athletic golden boy who gave it all up for the love of a woman he’s constantly told is beneath him. Also, John Cothran Jr. is fascinating as R.L., a preacher pal to Lazarus who lives for the good he can do today, not from his deathbed.
Moan isn’t perfect. Jackson slams the brakes on Lazarus’ religious mission without notice, and Brewer undoes his gothic spell by tying Rae’s self-destructive tendencies to stock childhood trauma. But this is a tale of emotion sold as exploitation, one where love, faith, friendship and music certainly won’t heal any deep wounds, but can make manageable all of the plentiful damage done.