Movies don’t get much wilder than “Black Snake Moan,” Craig Brewer’s follow-up to “Hustle and Flow.” Think of the Tennessee Williams of “Baby Doll” crossed with the Erskine Caldwell of “God’s Little Acre” and an added racial twist, and you’ll have some idea of its wacky, woozy character and its bilious sense of humor. Some will find it offensive—after all, any story about a young white girl chained up by an older black man in the rural south is bound to stir up some old ghosts. But Brewer’s picture, though stylistically hyperbolic and melodramatically florid, isn’t a sensationalistic effort to enflame old animosities; it’s a gleeful reversal-fueled commentary on them, in the final analysis designed to satirize the stale stereotypes rather than capitalize on them. And in the end, it’s a good-natured, but not simple-minded, story of support and healing, not just a brazen bondage movie (though it’s that as well, of course).
The picture begins by introducing us to two broken people—Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a farmer and erstwhile blues singer furious that his wife has just run off with his brother, and Rae (Christina Ricci), a poor white trash “loose girl” undone in her resolve to stay straight by the departure of her live-in boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), a National Guardsman, for Iraq. After a brief fling with a drug dealer, she gets so boozed up that she comes on to Ronnie’s supposed best buddy, angry Gil (Michael Raymond-James), who beats her up and tosses her on the road near Lazarus’ home. The old man rescues the girl, even securing some medicine for her from Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), a kindly clerk at the local pharmacy who’s clearly interested in him; and when he finds out how self-destructive she is, he determines to reform her. That leads him to chain her to the radiator in his living room and dole out some tough love. Others gradually get drawn into the mix—Lazarus’ avuncular preacher-friend (John Cothran), and a local kid whom Rae attempts to seduce before her conversion. And things really heat up when Ronnie suddenly returns with his nerves frayed, his suspicions aroused and a short fuse.
But not to worry; this isn’t one of those garish southern pieces that ends in tragedy, like “Some Came Running,” for instance. It’s a comedy not only in that it’s often hilariously over-the-top, but that it ends happily, with Lazarus reborn through the intervention of Angela (certainly their names alone should have foretold that) and Rae and Ronnie reunited, though still on the edge. And it’s a musical as well, since Brewer gives it as bluesy a feel as he did a rappin’ one to “Hustle and Flow,” with the resurrection of Lazarus’ singing gigs at the local dive acting as not just a counterpart to the relationships but a sort of commentary on them. And in Brewer’s hands it’s not just a sauce poured over the main dish; it actually becomes an integral part of the whole.
And the cast contribute their all. Jackson redeems the sort of rote work he’s done in junk like “Snakes on a Plane” with a rich, vibrant turn that makes you feel for his character as he’s transformed over the story’s course, and Ricci, who’s utterly anonymous in a movie like “Home of the Brave,” does incredibly courageous work, holding literally nothing back. (And, of course, she looks great.) Timberlake isn’t as impressive as he was in “Alpha Dog,” which showcased his flippant energy to greater effect, but he’s still solid enough to surprise the doubters. It won’t come as a shock that Merkerson is as good as she is, but kudos are also due Cothran, who makes the preacher, whom you might expect to be a stereotype, into a genuine human being, even if he is forced to mouth some of Brewer’s most mistaken platitudes.
“Black Snake Moan” has a gritty look and feel, not unlike “Hustle and Flow.” But the appearance of the picture, shot in widescreen by Amy Vincent, fits Brewer’s tattered southern style, as also does Scott Bomar’s score, whose throbbing intensity gives a kick to the more frantic moments.
There’s more than a hint of exploitation here, but also a surprisingly good heart beneath the admittedly lurid exterior. “Black Snake Moan” will make some people uncomfortable, but for many others it will be a giddily guilty pleasure.