In rural Tennessee, Lazarus, a former blues musician who survives by truck farming, finds a young girl nearly beaten to death near his home. She’s the white-trash town tramp, molded by a life of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and verbal abuse from her mother, who seems to delight in reminding Rae of her mistake in not aborting her. Lazarus, who is also facing personal crisis at the dissolution of his marriage, nurses Rae back to health, providing her with gentle, fatherly advice as well as an education in blues music. Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie, goaded by the man who nearly beat Rae to death, misunderstands the relationship between Lazarus and Rae, and vows to kill him. Lazarus, exhibiting a street-smart understanding of violence and its motives, calls Ronnie’s bluff, senses that he is as troubled as Rae, and becomes a guiding force in the young couple’s resurrection.
User Reviews: Craig Brewer is now officially a writer/director for whom I will see any film by, no matter how bad it may look. His debut, Hustle and Flow, was one of my favorites from that year, with its emotionally charged storyline and realistic, fallible characters. I wasn’t quite sure what I would end up thinking after seeing this sophomore effort. The cast seemed great, the trailer used music effectively, however, it seemed like there was a good chance it would cross into absurdity, and fast. Fortunately, Black Snake Moan hits all its marks dead-on. The acting is astonishing, the writing superb, and the editing style, as well as juxtaposed music, riveting the whole way. Brewer seems to be a master at getting his characters to have the right mix of both compassion and malice as they set forward on their paths toward redemption.
The first moment I knew I was in for a treat was during the abbreviated credit sequence at the beginning. Like he did with Hustle and Flow, Brewer lays the music over the widescreen shots perfectly with simply titled fonts coming up statically. The 70’s aesthetic was welcome and helped show that this would be another great character piece in the vain of those from that decade of some of cinema’s best. From here we continued on with the short snippets into the lives of both Lazarus and Rae, each vignette mirroring the other while they journey to the fateful moment their paths finally cross. The editing between them was fluid and relevant rather than abruptly cutting before the scene felt finished with its purpose. Rae’s boyfriend leaves for duty in the service and Laz’s wife leaves him for his brother. Each feels the loneliness and reverts to what they know in that situationRae to sex and Laz to the bottle. Only when Rae is left for dead at the side of the road and her savior comes from his farm to take her in does the reasoning for their actions finally start to become clear.
Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as the older bluesman farmer trying to reconcile his life with God and that of the flesh and the pain it has brought him. There are the moments of stoic sternness as well as those of kindheartedness with his captive/patient. You never really look at the setup as comical or unrealistic because he sells what he is doing so well. Also, the character of Rae is not chained up for very long, despite what the trailers would have you believe. The situation starts a bit awkward until we see that the chaining was for her own good and is actually used for only a day or two. As for that chained girl, Christina Ricci really shines. I never really saw her as anything special, but this role is a true breakthrough for her. This girl is so troubled that her past sexual abuse has scarred her very deep down. Any time she is away from her love she starts seeing flashes of the man who took her childhood innocence away and itches to be touched by any man available to let the image go away. Her nymphomania is not for pleasure, but rather for survival from the haunting nightmares always hiding behind her eyelids. Ricci fully inhabits the role and shows all the emotional trauma to great effect and realism. Mention must also be made of Justin Timberlake, again showing some real acting talent. Where this guy came from I have no clue, but hopefully he will continue taking more films and steer away from the mostly crap music he churns out.
While not as solid and consistent as Hustle and Flow, Moan still ranks equally to it, in my mind, because when it is on, it is spectacular. Towards the end we have a truly enthralling sequence with "This Little Light of Mine" singing out, and earlier, the interaction between captive and captor, when the chain is first introduced, shows some top-notch work. The truly magical moment, though, is when Jackson sings (yes that is him throughout, like it was Terrence Howard in Hustle) the titular song while a thunderstorm roars and the lights flicker. If I don’t see a more beautifully shot sequence all year, I won’t be surprised. What these two people do for each other is wonderful and shows what humanity is capable of. One thing I think I really enjoy with Brewer’s work is the fact that he doesn’t show sinners becoming redeemed heroes. Instead he shows us that no matter how bad you have been, or how bad life has been, everyone can strive for redemption and to be better people. We don’t have saints here, but fallible people looking to right their ship. If the course stays true or if it falls back into darkness, no one really knows, but at least they can say that they tried as hard as they could.