Snakes on a chain

A disgustingly gritty view of rural southern living, Black Snake Moan plays like a 21st century renaissance man, a jack of all trades and a master of mediocrity.

Best known for his convoluted hip-hopera Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer can’t seem to decide on a genre for his newest music-driven comedy, drama, romance, nymphomaniac, drug, exploitation film.

The lack of direction is almost made up for by a selection of muddy blues songs highlighting the perennial plight of unrequited love, but – much like a hippy at a bumper sticker sale – the music goes overboard.

Perhaps realizing the story alone couldn’t drive the film, Brewer overemployed the convention of music as catharsis.

This is not to take away from the performances of Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, who both proffer their best outings in recent memory (not to take anything away from Snakes on a Plane).

Jackson becomes Lazarus, a God fearing musician recently forced to watch his wife flee to the arms of another, while the newly heroine-chic Ricci convincingly plays an often scantily clad white-trash nymphomaniac, Rae.

The film, despite marketing suggesting otherwise, is dominated by the platonic relationship that develops between Lazarus and Rae. The chain that is so prominently displayed in the film’s promotional material serves not as some sort of sexual device, but as a symbol of Lazarus’ misguided attempts to subdue the “sin” of Rae’s constant, crazy sexual longings.

The relationship plays well as the ever-salty Jackson brandishes his impressive catalogue of uses for everyone’s favorite “f” word. However, it seems the movie may have been an excuse to show off some of Ricci’s physical aspects, flaunting more than just her face.

The performances of Ricci and Jackson stand in stark contrast to that of Justin Timberlake, who plays Rae’s love interest, Ronnie. Granted, the man is bringing sexy back, but as he sighs and clenches his jaw in fits of overacting, Timberlake’s performance is mirrored in Jackson’s fake beard.

If the drive of the film is to portray rural American life in a realistic way, the movie more than succeeds. Refusing to adopt the tendency of the modern film industry to glamorize small-town life, Brewer doesn’t insult the viewer by placing Jennifer Lopez in a doublewide with pink velvet wallpaper and a Waterford crystal chandelier.

However, the way in which every solitary point of the film is oversold and beaten to death – dumbing down the movie in the process – is insult enough. Take, for instance, Rae’s nymphomania. Despite Ricci’s best efforts, the way in which Rae’s overwhelming sexual obsession is presented slaps the viewer in the face, seeming to say, “Hey, look at what I can do!”

Ultimately, the story is one of spiritual release. The point is taken home with the viewer not because it’s cleverly crafted, but because there is no other choice. The music is amazing and Jackson excels, but the film is about 15 minutes too long.

Grade: C+Running time: 118 minsRating: R