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PARK CITY — She’s a backwoods nymphomaniac, and he’s a Southern-fried cuckold, and together they make one very odd couple in “Black Snake Moan.” This ludicrous Southern melodrama with over-the-top performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake is so convinced of its own righteousness that it almost makes a damn good comedy. Certainly the image of Ricci wearing panties and a peek-a-boo top getting dragged around by Jackson tugging on a chain wrapped around her tiny waist is one any publisher of ’50s dime novels would have loved for a book cover if only he dared.
Screenwriter-director Craig Brewer likes to make films about how music can heal people, and he got away with some pretty ludicrous fantasies about pimps and whores in his last film, “Hustle & Flow,” thanks to the music and winning performances. The blues music in “Moan” is superfine, but my oh my, what to make of the ripe Southern cliches and this absurd story. The film is so jaw-dropping awful that it just might become a boxoffice hit. The cast certainly is a plus as long as no one minds that Jackson sings and Timberlake doesn’t.
Ricci plays Rae, the tramp of a Southern town who has somehow snared an understanding guy in Ronnie (Timberlake). But when he ships off to boot camp despite her protests, she reverts to form in about five minutes. She gives herself to a local criminal, swallows heroic amounts of booze and drugs, plays football in the rain wearing only panties and shoulder pads, gets raped while smashed and is finally beaten and left for dead on a country road by Ronnie’s best friend.
She is discovered, unconscious and bleeding, by Lazarus (Jackson), a man who once played the blues but is now living them, his wife having just walked out on him to shack up with his brother. Don’t you just love the Old South?
Anyway, Lazarus takes it in his head to cure this woman of her wickedness. Oh yes, he does, praise the Lord. He chains that woman to a rusty old radiator, where he means to drive the devil out of her by quoting scripture.
Seems she gets these spells that start in her head and work their way down to her crotch. When she goes into heat like this, only intercourse with the nearest male can relieve her suffering. But Lazarus recognizes this infirmity to be not wantonness but child abuse and lost love. Dr. Phil, watch out!
He drags into this dicey situation a preacher (John Cothran) and then an innocent boy (David Banner). Rae screws the innocent boy, but she does listen a mite to the preacher. Then Lazarus unchains her and takes her to a juke joint, where his blues-playing has her dancin’ and rubbin’ against men and women. But she really is better now and realizes all she wants is Ronnie.
What’s this? Ronnie is back in town! Seems he has anxiety attacks all the time, so the Army sent him home. But when he finds his gal singing the blues with old Lazarus in his farmhouse, Ronnie pulls a gun. Good thing he never saw those chains.
Brewer throws in a forgettable subplot involving Lazarus’ growing affection for a local pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson), but this is weak tea compared to the main story’s moonshine. There is a good fight scene, though, between Rae and her white-trash mother (Kim Richards).
Even this synopsis can’t capture the overheated writing, acting and imagery. This is a world in which everyone solves their immediate problems with sex or violence — or violent sex. It’s a movie in which the leads shamelessly overplay the melodrama. And it has a director who fails to put his faith solely in the music he claims to adore. When Jackson gets around to singing the title song, for instance, he does so in his farmhouse one night as lightning and thunder crash all around him outside as if God were playing backup.
Cinematographer Amelia Vincent, in her second collaboration with Brewer and third with Jackson, makes Keith Brian Burns’ interior sets burn with the fever of sin and redemption while the countryside and backwater town feel bucolic and ominous. And those costumes by Paul A. Simmons surely do belong on that dime novel cover.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN
New Deal Prods./Southern Cross the Dog Prods.
Screenwriter-director: Craig Brewer
Producer: John Singleton, Stephanie Allain
Director of photography: Amelia Vincent
Production designer: Keith Brian Burns
Music: Scott Bomar
Costume designer: Paul A. Simmons
Editor: Billy Cox
Lazarus: Samuel L. Jackson
Rae: Christina Ricci
Ronnie: Justin Timberlake
Angela: S. Epatha Merkerson
Preacher R.L.: John Cothran
Gil: Michael Raymond-James
Sandy: Kim Richards
Tehronne: David Banner
Running time — 115 minutes
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