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'Black Snake Moan': Welcome to the dirty, dirty South

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Black Snake Moan

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Lazarus is a lonely Blues singer whose wife has just left him for another man. But when he finds a young woman named Rae battered and beaten on a stretch of dirt road, he also finds a new purpose. Armed with an old Bible and a forty-pound chain, Laz becomes determined to put an end to Rae’s promiscuity and cure her of her “wickedness.”

"Black Snake Moan" offers a rare treat in modern cinema: surprise. Although each scene has been carefully crafted to contribute to the overall story progression (i.e.: it is not needlessly random), the audience would be hard put to guess what could happen next in the sequence of events. For instance, one of the first scenes of the film shows Rae (Christina Ricci) in the middle of having passionate intercourse with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). The film then ends with Rae and Ronnie declaring their devotion to one another. By reversing the typical chronology of emotional intimacy with that of sexual intimacy, the film alludes to the almost backward order in which relationships are formed and thereby hints at the nature of the characters themselves. Thus the audience, destined to enter each scene in media res, becomes a type of voyeur into the traumatized world of Laz, Rae, and Ronnie.

The only cliché in "Black Snake Moan" is the use of a Southern accent to denote a lack of education. Yet despite the seeming simplicity with which a careless audience might judge these characters, every person who makes an appearance in the film possesses depth and history. The film alludes to Rae’s sexually abusive home as a precursor to her promiscuity. Laz, having suffered a double betrayal when his wife left him for his brother, oscillates between intense, almost suicidal bitterness and an earnest desire to help Rae. Ronnie, Rae’s naïve boyfriend, suffers from severe anxiety which eventually affects his position in the military. Even the preacher, R.L., smokes, drinks, and curses. Most importantly: none of these “weaknesses” keeps any of the charactes from proving that, in the end, they are all good people.

The choice to cast Samuel L. Jackson as Laz must have been pretty easy. I mean, the guy looks like a bitter bulldog. All Jackson had to do was flair his nostrils and stare into the camera with his inherently grief-filled eyes to convincingly play the part of a lonely, intensely religious sinner. Christina Ricci fills her part with ease, having come a long way since she played Kathleen Harvey in "Casper." Although she appears half-naked throughout the entire movie, it’s not necessarily her legs and exposed midriff that draw the eyes of the audience (maybe), but her courage. "Black Snake Moan" with its abundance of seedy sex, sometimes heretical religion, and plenty of booze almost begs to cross the line. Whether Ricci is lying naked and stoned on a beercan-littered field or smashing her face into a mirror while a pimp pounds into her from behind, Ricci never shies away, proving that she does not fear any role.

The soundtrack to this film is a compilation of old Blues tracks – simple, short, and full of grief – and therefore an appropriate companion to the film’s plot. Even the title of the movie derives from a 1927 recording by the Blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. But in the setting, the film finds its first real flaw, its first flirtation with the trite and cliché: the audience sees a vivid depiction of the stereotypical Southern “Bible belt” where fathers rape their daughters and everyone goes to church on Sunday. Moreover, no real temporal context is established. Did this story take place years and years ago? Or is the town so isolated that, while set in the present, it mimics the primitive South? Yet the apparent lack of social resources works to establish Laz’s isolation as well as Rae’s desperation. They are lost people in a lost world.

The film lasts approximately 116 minutes, but moves fairly quickly. It allows enough time for Laz and Rae’s individual tragedies to manifest before they meet and, inevitably, save one another. However, the movie employs several slightly stale black-and-white scenes of an old Blues singer spouting odd axioms on love and life, scenes that seem unnecessary in the midst of fantastic performances and a gripping plot.

"Black Snake Moan" is difficult to categorize. It is more than drama, more than tragedy, more than a life story. It relates the kind of experiences that remind you of sucking on a greasy coin or standing in a cold, abandoned alley. It is dirty. It is brave. It is unique. It is "Black Snake Moan."

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