Silently slithering into theatres this week, Black Snake Moan masquerades as something sexy, uninterested in delivering on the significance of its subject.
When it comes to movies, deception always begins at the promotional stage. Moan’s poster features an intimidating Samuel L. Jackson towering above a thin, blonde Christina Ricci curled up at his feet. She’s wrapped up in chains like his pet. The tagline reads “Everything is Hotter Down South”.
If the ad suggests a piece of vintage pin-up art, the film decidedly goes a step further. Ricci’s Rae spends the first 10 minutes of the picture clad in cut-offs and a T-shirt, doing the nasty with any male on-screen.
While it’s clear from her feverish primal urges that she has some emotional issues to be explored, director Craig Brewer’s exploitative approach relies solely on Ricci’s toned body to draw his audience in.
It’s only once that beaten body ends up on the doorstep of Jackson’s Lazarus that Brewer momentarily pulls away from the R-rated impulses to focus on his characters. Laz, a farmer whose wife has just walked out on the marriage, is in dire need of a new pet project. He finds one in Rae and chains her up for safe-keeping, setting the stage for a journey of mutual rebirth.
Brewer, who also wrote the script, lazily sets up his characters with everything they need to reach a happy ending. The persistent local minister pushes his way into the story to serve as a southern Baptist Dr Phil, while the sweet local pharmacist slips Laz some medicine and her number. The only real challenges in Laz’s life are resisting Rae’s seductive charms and getting up on stage to play the titular “Black Snake Moan” on his guitar. Compelling, he ain’t.
Rae on the other hand, has all the makings of a compelling character. Given her body’s desperate need for physical comfort, it’s obvious from the start that she suffered sexual abuse at an early age. Brewer, however, assumes this is some kind of surprise, and waits until the final act before revealing that Rae’s mother passively allowed a boyfriend to do the abusing. It’s then that Ricci finally connects, as Rae grabs a Swiffer and lashes out at mom in the aisle of the local convenience store.
It’s a raw and emotionally charged moment in a story otherwise devoid of sensitivity. The only draw-back is that Brewer still took the easy way out by making the mother completely irredeemable.
As if that weren’t enough, Justin Timberlake plays Rae’s boyfriend Ronnie with all the conviction of an Intro to Acting student. He clenches his jaw and stares intently to suggest the character that was never there.
The film is also inexplicably bookended by black and white footage of some old blues musician Brewer expects the audience to recognize. These superficial additions distract from the narrative, which concludes rather predictably. Laz bonds with Rae over the healing power of music, and the suspicious Ronnie drops in at an inopportune moment like a well-placed anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
There’s some base humor to enjoy in Moan, but one can’t shake the feeling that Brewer’s the one really having the last laugh.
His simple-minded and sickening approach will likely leave audiences feeling as taken advantage of as the character-type he pimped out for profit.
As much material as there might have been here to mine, what you see on the poster is sadly all you’ll get.