Variety, 1/28/07


Mix Brigitte Bardot in "And God Created Woman" with Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll," sex it up times 10 and you have a notion of the effect of Christina Ricci in "Black Snake Moan." Part sleazy Southern exploitation pic about a wild firecat that would have made Erskine Caldwell blush, part blues-infused "Pygmalion" story about the tramp's reformation at the hands of an older black man, Craig Brewer's follow-up to his 2005 Sundance winner "Hustle & Flow" probably will find its most eager audience among college-age guys hot to ogle the young star in some very raw action.

The film, set in a small Tennessee town that seems populated in equal measure by just-getting-by white and black folk, is a strange brew. The first part introduces a massively messed-up character in a boldly lascivious manner: The ultra-trashy Rae (Ricci) has a desperate final screw with her Iraq-bound National Guard b.f. (Justin Timberlake), almost immediately thereafter gets it on with beefy black drug dealer Tehronne (David Banner) and then gets so wasted at a dance that she's available for the taking by anyone.

After a bloodied, unconscious Rae is found by the side of the road next morning and taken in by middle-aged farmer Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson, with graying hair and beard), whose wife has just left him, the pace lets up a bit. Until, that is, Rae comes to, whereupon her crazed reaction to her new surroundings and caretaker provoke Lazarus to chain her to the radiator.

"I aim to cure you of your wickedness," announces Lazarus, having been informed by Tehronne of Rae's "sickness." As she herself explains, she's got an itch, which means she gotta have it, and Rae's immediate instinct is to offer herself to Lazarus in exchange for her freedom. But that's not part of his mission and, no matter what others think of his harboring the local slut in his home, Lazarus is determined to try to break Rae of her wildness, like a horse.

As Rae's behavior reduces to simmer, however, the provocation quotient lowers as well and pic begins to log quite a bit of downtime. Lazarus pulls out his guitar, practices some tunes and, in a rollicking sequence, plays in public for the first time at a bar, where a freed Rae dances with abandon.

Lazarus finds himself on the receiving end of gentle overtures from a nice lady (the wonderful S. Epatha Merkerson) in a slow-burning relationship and, with the help of the local preacher (John Cothran Jr.), Rae may be put on a road toward survival.

It's obvious from this film and "Hustle & Flow" that music means a great deal to Brewer, and hardcore blues fans may groove on every minute of the musicianship here. But the dramatic line suffers considerably from the truckful of tunes offered up, resulting in a well-executed, handsome-looking film that runs perhaps 20 minutes longer than it should given its storyline.

Toplined Jackson is very fine as the principled, emotionally tender but tough-talking country man who, befitting his name, takes it upon himself to bring the community's most scorned woman back to life. Supporting perfs are forceful and/or appealing as required.

But it is Ricci who will be remembered when all else about the film has been forgotten. Her large oval face dominating her tiny body, which is exceptionally thin around the waist, Ricci is clad in scanty cutoffs, panties, midriff-baring shirts at most and often less. Here she is a feral animal, a force of nature, a wild thing with a ferocious physicality and a sexuality like Vesuvius in its prime. Her Rae is Eros unplugged, unquenchable, inexhaustible. Fascinating, scary and entirely debauched, Rae is the sort of female creature who has been seen onscreen many times before, but rarely, or perhaps never, so bluntly portrayed in a Hollywood studio film.

A Paramount Vantage release of a New Deal/Southern Cross the Dog production. Produced by John Singleton, Stephanie Allain. Executive producer, Ron Schmidt. Directed, written by Craig Brewer.

Lazarus - Samuel L. Jackson
Rae - Christina Ricci
Ronnie - Justin Timberlake
Angela - S. Epatha Merkerson
R.L. - John Cothran Jr.
Tehronne - David Banner
Gill - Michael Raymond-James
Jesse - Amy Lavere
Rae's Mother - Kim Richards