Black Snake Moan was originally the name of a song written and recorded by the late, great blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, sung and played in this movie by its star, Samuel L Jackson, and as a metaphor in the name of the movie for a new arrival in the life of ex-bluesman, bible-bashing Lazarus Redd. The black snake in this case is a troubled and vulnerable young woman, Rae Doole (Christina Ricci) whose finance has left for an army tour, has sought attention in the form of sex, has been beaten up by sleighted friend Gill Morton (Michael Raymond-James) and left for dead.
Be warned: this is a tale of redemption for both the character leads, as witnessed by the quotes from bluesman and preacher Son House at various points in the film.
But first a word about Mr Jackson. That he is a star is beyond doubt, and that he routinely delivers powerful performances demonstrable. My only issue is that too many of his screen appearances are beginning to look similar, by virtue of doing that thing that he does, notably with his eyes. That thing is a very pointed and menacing way of putting other characters in their place; it says “I ain’t messing’ around, motherfucker.”
He famously did it at least twice in Pulp Fiction, and routinely does it in every Tarantino movie (see also Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.) It is perhaps the finest current example of a mannered performance (as opposed to overacting), at least since the great Alan Rickman died. You wouldn’t think there was much in common between them, but this is true. In case you aren’t with me, here is a dictionary definition of mannered in this context”
Man·nered / ˈmanərd/ • adj. 1. [in comb.] behaving in a specified way: pleasant-mannered.2. (of a writer, artist, or artistic style) marked by idiosyncratic mannerisms; artificial, stilted, and overelaborate in delivery: inane dialogue and mannered acting.
Don’t get me wrong, SLJ is superb, a true icon, though is party piece is becoming, not passé or clichéed exactly but renowned and there to be seen in every movie. The weakness here is that while he is competent as a blues performer, he will never be a great – he’s merely acting the part, which is probably why for his final song on stage he talks through the blues rather than singing it.
However, as a true humanitarian he delivers a fine account of Lazarus, compromised by life’s frustrations but never once giving into the temptation placed so squarely before him – as he repeatedly tells everyone he meets, friends included. The unfortunate Rae is the devil, though he has pastor RL (John Cothran Jr) on his side as an angel to help him resist.
In the course of several days at his remote shack as the fevered Rae recovers from her injuries and makes to escape, Laz decides he has to be cruel to be kind. This he does by chaining her down and resisting her breaks for freedom, for her own good – his chains b
He obtains medication from his friend, pharmacist Rose (Adriane Lenox) to heal Rae; he feeds her and plays the guitar for her; he even bathes her in ice to cure her fever. Since she spends most of her time attired in a crop top t-shirt and grubby white pants, he also buys her respectable clothes and eventually unchains her.
Writer/director Craig Brewer has done a fine job here in building tension and presenting the brooding Laz and his temptation, and the gradual conversion of the troubled Rae from nymphomaniac with serious injuries to the point where she can meet her trigger-happy and PTSD-affected fiancé Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) and marry him. Wish we would all be as cool as Laz when faced with the angry end of a revolver, but then when you don’t care if you live or die it’s probably much the easier.
This is a slight tale, in that the narrative is not driven by extensive plot twists. It is an effective character-driven tale, and that is what appealed to the A-listers to sign up for it. For Ricci in particular, this is a risk, since she spends much of the film nigh-on naked but also emotionally exposed. Would a quality actress want to be stereotyped playing a nymphomaniac, nudge nudge? Clearly not, but Ricci brings to Rae depth and motivation.
We get to hear her back story and understand how she came to be in the terrible state she is in at the beginning of the film, and indeed why Lazarus has a spiritual need to disown his own past and treat Rae as his salvation as well as her own. Watch and enjoy – particularly the blues!