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WGUC Reviews

Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan
Rated R
Review by: Larry Thomas

Many film fans consider the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s as the golden age of the "drive-in movie." Drive-in theatres dotted the landscape, and even most small towns had at least one, while cities had the luxury of numerous locations. What constituted a "drive-in movie?" Generally, it was a low-budget affair, with lots of action, comedy or violence, and stuck to tried-and-true formulas: car chases, beach parties, monsters on the loose, or rampaging motorcycle gangs. Also in the mix were films with racial themes.

The changes in movie going habits eventually dictated changes in how these films were seen. The few drive-ins that were left embraced family fare, since mom, pop, and the kids were far less difficult to manage than carloads of teenagers. The multiplexes all played the same wide-release movies, so only the better films of this type were shown. The low-budget anomalies once tagged as "drive-in movies" became the "direct-to-video movie," bypassing theatres completely.

Every so often, a contemporary film shows up that harkens back to that age of ozone emporiums. Black Snake Moan is such a film.
Writer-director Craig Brewer, who scored a big hit in 2005 with Hustle and Flow, manages to capture the look and feel of a "drive-in movie" while enjoying the advantages of a larger budget and far superior cast. The always enjoyable, and sometimes great, Samuel L. Jackson plays Lass (short for Lazarus), a former local blues singer / guitarist, who renounced music to become a farmer and marry his true love. When Lass' true love dumps him to run off with his younger brother, Lass' is, to be polite, unhappy.

Rae, played by the versatile Christina Ricci, is in love with Ronnie, who's leaving for the Army. Rae also happens to be a hard-drinking, pill-popping, corn-fed nymphomaniac who has no control over her libido. When Ronnie ships out, Rae is also unhappy, although Ronnie has his own demons to deal with.

After a brutal encounter in a pickup truck with Ronnie's best friend, Rae is left badly beaten on the road, where Lass finds her the next morning. Being the God-fearing soul that he is, Lass takes Rae in to his home and nurses her back to health.

One of the joys of Black Snake Moan is that in-between what seems like a bare-bones plot, there are scenes, events, and performances that make it all come to life. Ronnie is played by pop star Justin Timberlake, and though his role is small, his performance indicates an acting career looms large in his future. S. Epatha Merkerson, the Emmy-winning Lieutenant from TV's "Law and Order" series, is the kindly and helpful pharmacist, who is smitten with the jilted Lass. And, of course, Jackson and Ricci burn up the screen with their tormented histrionics. One of the real finds in this film is John Cothran, Jr., as Lass' childhood friend, the Reverend R.L. He's been doing bit parts for years, but finally has a chance to stand out in a notable role. And watch for former Disney child star Kim Richards as Ricci's uncaring mother.

Some might call Black Snake Moan "lurid," "over the top," or perhaps even "trashy." Yes, it's all of those, but this southern-fried morality play is charged with energy and drama, humor and violence, and friendship and redemption. Black Snake Moan is infused with more-than generous helpings of sweat, sex and salvation, and has a story and characters that would make Tennessee Williams proud.


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