Monday, January 08, 2007

Black Snake Moan Review

Black Snake Moan was a film that I thank BNAT 8 for "forcing" me to watch. I knew very little about it and what I had read turned me off. I knew only that Christina Ricci played a Southern slut and that Samuel L. Jackson played a fiery Christian who chains her to a radiator to reform her. The promo posters and the title led me to believe this would be one sweaty piece of exploitation.

It’s not. Not at all. And while those promotional posters are a lot of fun, I hope they make a subtle change in the marketing because a lot of people who would really enjoy this movie will be turned off by them. Then again, maybe there is something to be said for encouraging people to take a risk.

Black Snake Moan is, to borrow a really apt observation from Buttnumbathon, something out of Flannery O’Connor. The film is drenched in the humid and desperate poverty of the South, those tiny towns you can’t believe really exist. But the comparison only goes so far, Black Snake Moan is O’Connor if she had written with more of a heart and less of the grotesque. That’s not to say the grotesque doesn’t play a bit of a part—Christina Ricci’s “itch” leaves little to the imagination and the town is full of hick stereotypes. But there’s also a lot of tenderness and goodness and while the ending isn’t a fairy tale one, you’re left with hope that these people are all going to make it.

This film boasts the best performance I have ever seen from Samuel L. Jackson. Again, the promotional material sells him as a terrifying individual and that’s simply not true. He’s a genuinely good man, and while flawed and unpredictable, he is still utterly likeable. There’s not very much of the “badass motherfucker” in this film, he may threaten a reverend with a rifle, but he also makes up a gift basket with ginger scented lotion for his lady friend. You are actually rooting for him to chain her to that radiator. If there’s one person who can help the town slut, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. He really should get an Oscar nomination for this film, if only for the taunt scene where he plays the blues to Ricci. There’s your Oscar clip right there.

I would venture to say this is one of the best roles I have seen from Christina Ricci as well. For me, Ricci has the reputation of one of those actresses who believes a daring part is something of pure shock value. This may not be true--I confess, I’m lazy and haven’t seen much of her recent work. I was ready to lump Black Snake Moan in with that. The film even sets you up to expect this—we first meet her having sex with Timberlake and strutting around in hot pants and crop tops. She’s the town bicycle that you just hate. And then the film hits you with who she really is—a sad and self-loathing girl who has had a truly horrible time of it. Cliched? Maybe, but it’s also a tragic reality for far too many women. That’s what is so great about Ricci’s performance. It may start out as a bit of a caricature, but she shines through as someone very real and deserving of your pity.

And Justin Timberlake! Who knew he could act? I did not even know he was in this film and barely recognized him onscreen. He looks like a sad little Army boy and he plays one to perfection. There’s no musician swagger, this is a boy (and I emphasize boy) who has no other option and is just trying to find a way out for himself and his girl. His character suffers a lot of heartbreak in this film and there isn’t one forced or theatrical moment. I am incredibly impressed.

Black Snake Moan is a long way from a sexy, exploitive film. It’s funny, it’s touching and even packs a few scary moments. Every time you think it’s going in a certain direction and will land in cliche, it veers off and surprises you. This will be one of the best films of 2007 and should get double the attention Hustle and Flow did.

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