The new movie from director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) probably isn't what anyone is expecting. I can say that with some level of reassurance because it wasn't what I was expecting, and I'd seen the trailer and read plenty of plot synopsis beforehand.
To try to do some level of justice to the plot (which really can't begin to describe what makes this movie great), I'll give a quick rundown. Set in the deep South, Samuel L. Jackson plays a former blues singer named Lazarus, whose life has recently hit the skids when his younger wife leaves him for his little brother. Battling between the bottle and living the word of God, Lazarus is struggling for salvation. Across the tracks is Rae (Christina Ricci), a nymphomaniac whose great love, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), has just returned to the army. Although she wants to be a good girl, she quickly loses control, cavorting with men all over town and ultimately finding herself half naked and beaten on the side of the road.
Lazarus finds her and nurses her back to health, but when he asks around town about her, he learns of her scandalous reputation. Feeling as though this might be a chance to redeem himself, Lazarus decides to try to cure Rae of her "wicked ways," although his method may leave some room for questioning. He chains her to a radiator until she can gain control of her sinful urges.
But Black Snake Moan really defies description. It bucks convention at every turn, always teetering on the edge of going too far and becoming something else entirely, but never falling off the cliff. It's a story of friendship and salvation. It's a drama, a black comedy. It's sexy, but often in a trashy, disturbing way. Most of all, it's smart. It's got colorful characters that audiences aren't used to seeing and performances that sell them, which is what makes Black Snake such a refreshing watch.
It's unfortunate for Sam Jackson that the Snake in the title might draw some joking references or comparisons to the dreadful Snakes on a Plane, but hopefully they'll stop there. This is Jackson's best performance in more than a decade, probably since the role that broke him out into the mainstream, Pulp Fiction. As Lazarus, Jackson sheds his usual persona for a Southern-fried man of Jesus who is a far cry from the fur jackets, Kangols and famously delivered cursing. Bald and graying, Jackson's look is a different one, but its distinction really comes from an intense dedication to character. A pop culture figure himself, Jackson quickly makes you forget he's Samuel L. Jackson, a feat he hasn't achieved for me in quite some time. He's just terrific in the role, committing himself 110 percent, even down to some great blues singing and guitar picking. It's rare that a movie released in March is remembered by Oscar Nom time almost a year later, but I'd be very surprised to see five better lead male performances in 2007.
Ricci, who has always chosen interesting material and proven her acting chops a few times over, has the additional challenge of playing her part half-naked for the majority of the movie. Prancing around in a cutoff shirt and white panties (and sometimes less), Ricci invests herself fully into the troubled white trash little girl Rae. When you first meet the character, it's almost with a slightly smirk of voyeuristic superiority. This girl just can't seem to get enough, well, you know. But as we learn more about her life through Ricci's touching performance, Rae's awakening is engaging. She really becomes a character you can sympathize with and care for.
Together, Rae and Lazarus provide one of the most unlikely and touching platonic portrayals of friendship since Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy or, to make a more recent and very obscure reference, Jennifer and "R" in the little seen gem, My First Mister. Ricci and Jackson share a wonderful chemistry that sell's Brewer's complicated story.
I'm really, really excited to see what Craig Brewer does next. I liked Hustle and Flow very much, but Black Snake Moan is an even better movie. It shows a greater maturity and control of the form. Brewer is a very talented young director (dare I say future auteur?) and this is a daring, smart work with wonderfully written characters (Brewer also wrote the script) and another loving portrayal of the deep south he seems to know so well.