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Heroes of the Zeroes: Black Snake Moan

by on February 7, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films from 2000 to 2009.

“Black Snake Moan”
Rated R
2007

There existed a strong temptation to write off writer/director Craig Brewer as a deep-fried imitator of Quentin Tarantino in this 2007 humid backwoods drama — stylishly tilting his camera at disorienting angles and superimposing the film’s title on the screen a la 1970s exploitation.

But Brewer turned what sounded like an uncomfortable mix of skanky sex and racial tension into a treatise on the blues and the Bible rather than a tawdry package.

Christina Ricci plays Rae, a white self-destructive nymphomaniac chained to a radiator as an exorcise routine by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bluesman-cum-religious zealot.

Jackson impressively sings his own spit-flecked blues here, and the title song feels like musical rapture — buckets of rain pouring outside, power clipping on and off, a deafeningly amplified moment in a film rife with cranked sensory volume. But mentioning Gilead’s balm isn’t for naught, as “Moan” becomes a quiet ensemble look at a community of afflicted people.

Jackson looks every long hour of his 58 years here. Ricci never flinches as a character about whom we are deeply conflicted — hating her for how she defines one boy’s entire sexual future, but hoping she’ll find shelter in her boyfriend’s heart.

Brewer imperfectly jams the brakes on Lazarus’s mission without notice and undoes his gothic spell by tying Rae’s tendencies to stock childhood trauma. But this is an emotional story sold as exploitation — one where love, faith, friendship and music won’t heal deep wounds but can make manageable the plentiful damage done.

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