- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

When last seen, writer-director Craig Brewer was winning praise for “Hustle & Flow,” a gritty, musically fueled Southern underdog tale that asked viewers to identify with a pimp on a quest for a better life. It was successful enough to convince Academy voters that the crunk tune “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” was Oscar material. (It won best original song last year.)

His latest film, “Black Snake Moan,” is a similar exploration of the Southern ethos, of music’s transcendent power, of loose women, violent men and unlikely friendships forged. And once again, it illustrates Mr. Brewer’s keen ability to capture the essence of place, such that it almost plays like its own character.

This time around, he heads for the rural countryside, where he finds inspiration in that area’s emotional equivalent to hip-hop: the blues.

The movie, indeed, seethes with soul — and not just in the soundtrack sense. It’s studded with biblical references, streaming with sweat, and contains smoldering performances by most of its fine cast.

However, if you’re one of those who took offense to “Hustle’s” misogynistic themes and accompanying objectification of women that lingered long after the characters’ eventual redemption, don’t expect any different here. It may not be about selling women’s bodies for money, but “Snake” replaces that thematic element with a more explicit, visual one.

Additionally, the flick treads lightly around the racial issues that strongly underpin it — so lightly, in fact, that it finds humor in them. (Whether audiences will find it funny remains to be seen.)

None of this means that Mr. Brewer’s tale isn’t compelling, though.

Rae (an electrifying performance by the taut-bodied Christina Ricci) is the type of girl Daisy Duke could’ve been, had she been abused as a child and rejected by her family; she’s a fiery filly with a self-destructive tendency and an unquenchable sexual appetite.

Her only salve is her boyfriend, the naive and boy-faced Ronnie (gently fleshed out by Justin Timberlake). When he ships off to boot camp, Rae attempts to numb her pain by spreading herself around town like an Avon lady giving out free product samples, and succeeds only in getting beaten senseless and left for dead.

Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds her lifeless, half-naked body and cautiously (she’s a white woman, after all) takes her in to nurse her back to health. After he discovers her animalistic cravings, however, he vows to cure her of her sin as well. Given that his own cheating wife just left him, he’s got some personal investment in righting this woman’s wrongs.

Until he can figure out how to proceed, Laz chains Rae (still in undies) to his radiator. It’s an implausible plot point that, miraculously, the filmmaker eventually succeeds in getting us (for the most part) to concede — but only because Laz is such an honest, God-fearing man. He may be the only man in town not taking advantage of her indiscretions, and we know he just wants to help.

The two develop a bizarrely symbiotic relationship, and their names alone tell us where this is all going: Rae will convince Laz to revisit his past as a bluesman, thus resurrecting him, and Laz will help her heal from past wounds and see the light of a new day.

Peripheral characters both support and stymie their respective progress, from a soulful preacher man (the charismatic John Cothran Jr.) who introduces Rae to God, to a young farm boy who (rather disturbingly) becomes sucked into the seductress’s web.

“Snake” is a fine vehicle for Miss Ricci, who passionately attacks her role, shackles and all. Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson finds his inner musician. He may not have the most memorable voice, yet he figures out how to caress his guitar like the lifeline it is.

Ultimately, the movie isn’t perfect, but this is the blues; imperfections make it interesting, right?

***

TITLE: “Black Snake Moan”

RATING: R (strong adult content and language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Craig Brewer

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: www.moanmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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