Set in rural Tennessee, the film starts off with dysfunctional lovers Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) grinding nasties as he prepares to depart for a stint in the military. Their down and dirty hump session gets things off--pun intended--to a nice start, as Brewer introduces his audience to the sweaty world he is about take us on a guided tour of. You can almost smell the coital funk and stale cigarettes. No sooner has Ronnie hit the road, than Rae goes into an emotional tailspin. For reasons that will be defined later, Rae is a peel-her-off-the-gear-shift nymphomaniac. We're talking the sort of can't get-enough-sex-maniac that is the stuff of urban legend. With the wet spot on her bed not even dry, Rae goes on self-destructive bender of pill-popping and cock-hopping. But when she tangles with the wrong stud, he beats her senseless (not that she has much sense), and leaves her for dead on the side of a dirt road.
Meanwhile, on another side of town, there is Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a hard-drinking man, prone to violence, who has given up his devilish past of singing the blues in smoky juke joints for a respectable life as a farmer. But when Lazarus' wife leaves him for his younger brother, his violence and his drinking return with a vengeance. Hung over and still wrestling with his own personal demons, Lazarus discovers the scantily clad Rae on the side of the road. He carries her home to his modest house, where he tends to her wounds. But as he comes to realize an insasiable sex demon dwells somewhere within her burning pit of womanhood, Lazarus takes it upon himself to exorcise the devil within Rae.
See what I mean? That sounds like a pretty crappy sexploitation film with all the needed elements for some softcore balling and plenty of gratuitous nudity. But that's not what this film is. Black Snake Moan is something significantly more than it appears to be in writing. And at the risk of inviting unwanted ire and backlash, I'd go so far to say that Black Snake Moan is a melodramatic cinematic cousin to the steamy, pent-up passion found in the works of Tennessee Williams. Yes, Williams is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, and Brewer has yet to earn his place among that sort of revered scribe, but he is certainly off to a good start.
At its core, Black Snake Moan is a love story. As unlikely a couple as Jackson and Ricci may be, they are just that. And though they never have sex together, there is an intimacy between the two that goes beyond the sexual, and ventures into the realm of spiritual. During one of the film's sweatiest moments, Lazarus, having dusted off his electric guitar and returned to one of his former haunts, lets loose with a blues number that turns the place into a gyrating mass of sexual energy. With Rae grinding away on the dance floor, and Lazarus unleashing years of pent up emotion in a way that only the blues can allow, Brewer crafts a scene of such intense sexuality and pure human energy it can make you short of breathe. This is famed painter Ernie Barnes' "Sugar Shack" come to life. And with that type of energy, Rae and Lazarus never need to sleep together. It would be anti-climatic by comparison.
The film does, however, have its flaws. At times, Black Snake Moan dances dangerously close to being one of those "magical Negro" movies--the sort of film Sidney Poitier used to star in for filmmakers like Guy Green and Stanley Kramer, in which a black man, through his wisdom, hard work, and unwavering support, helps white folks heal whatever is ailing them. Ultimately, Black Snake Moan is not all that different than Green's A Patch of Blue, where Poitier liberates a blind white woman for the confines of a domineering mother who wants to suppress her. Sure, Rae isn't blind, and there's no Shelley Winters as an evil, bigoted mother, but those differences are cosmetic. Black Snake Moan still treads upon similar ground as some of Poitier's most well know work. At the same time, many of those films--including A Patch of Blue--are great works of cinema. In fact, the only reason I raise this point is because I can, and because most others won't. It is important that people see Brewer's work--as well crafted as it may be--for the similarities it shares with the work Tennessee Williams and Sidney Poitier.
Black Snake Moan is a good film, laced with some great moments. The film works, in part because of Brewer's gift for writing and a knack for direction that is undeniable. This is only his third feature film, but he exhibits so much assured style and confidence that he is one of the few filmmakers out there really worth keeping a watchful eye on. But as much as Brewer's script works, it is his cast that brings it all to life. Jackson, while being a popular actor, is the reigning king of one-note performances and phoning it in. But here, he has on his acting shoes, and he is willing to travel that extra mile to deliver the sort of performance we all know him capable of, but seem to witness with less frequency. Likewise, Ricci, who at best seems interchangeable with about a dozen other nubile actresses who seldom challenge themselves, either through lack of talent or lack of quality material, gives one of her best performances. But the real surprise--at least for anyone who didn't see Alpha Dog--is Justin Timberlake, who proves he has some serious acting chops. Leaving behind his pretty boy image, he joins the cast as part of the menagerie of emotionally crippled souls in need of salvation.
Black Snake Moan is not a film for everyone. Some people are likely to be confused by it, not knowing what to make of its unconventional love story, severely fractured characters, and the fact that it defies many of the conventions that dictate Hollywood. But those are all part of what makes this film great. This is a dynamic film about people mired in ugliness, who still manage to find the beauty that hides within. It is about the weak healing the weak, and finding their own personal strength through loving someone else and being loved by someone else. It will not stand as Brewer's best work, but it still towers above many other contemporary films.