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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

'Black Snake Moan' review

Christina Ricci shocks and shines in her return to the big screen

This March, one of the most controversial films of 2007 premiered, after being buzzed for months about its alleged misogyny and racism. Black Snake Moan, a parable starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, is a unique and individual film that, while weak in some parts, is a tour de force for Ricci';s performance as a sex-addicted Mississippi runt who is enslaved to transform under the watchful eye of Jackson'sbluesman-turned-farmer.

The selling point of the film has been the farmer's unethical way of taming the promiscuous girl of her "demons" (locking a 40-ft chain around her waist and keeping her housebound for days), but it is a drastic measure for a girl who has used sex to mask being sexually abused as a child, taking back power in an aggressive and emotionless manner. The girl, named Rae, frequently suffers fits and spells, mentally revisiting her past abuses with her current sexual situations of overtaking a man or letting a man have his way with her, practically using her as a toilet.

The film suffers by garnering a lot of unintentional laughs from the audience for what would be an intense story. The chain scenes are made to be hilarious instead of disturbing (as it would be for anyone in that situation), and Jackson's cult popularity for Pulp Fiction and Snakes on a Plane gives the audience a smug knowingness, laughing at the way he says "motherfucker"; or rolls his eyes in disbelief at another. In addition, the subplot of Rae's Iraq-bound boyfriend is unnecessary, a ploy to make Rae more sympathetic by showing her in loving coitus with her man and having him for stability in her turbulent life. The boyfriend is dead weight and Rae was enough of a fleshed-out character without him.

The glue of this film is Christina Ricci as Rae. Recovering from a career slump (her last critically-acclaimed role prior was in Monster, and in The Opposite of Sex five years before that), she reveals herself physically and emotionally naked, a feral animal ripping herself for the audience to gaze upon both in titillation and sympathy. A standout scene is her Pentecostal-like dance to the blues classic 'Stackolee,' releasing herself of her sexual demons and feeling free and exhilarated for the first time in years.

The film was directed by Craig Brewer, best known for the Oscar-winning Hustle & Flow. This continues the same style of using music to complement a Southern lifestyle, and it works superbly, enriching the film with the blues music of R.L. Burnside and Scott Bomar's raw instrumentals, and covers sung by Jackson himself, evoking the style if not the technical proficiency. The title is derived by Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1920s number, and it evokes comparisons to PJ Harveys 'Long Snake Moan.'

Black Snake Moan is a flawed piece, but the blues-numbers scenes and Christina Ricci’s performance will rivet you and get under your skin.

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