Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle & Flow is another tale of redemption that feels like a darker rendition of "Pygmalion."
Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci are a God-fearing, middle-aged black man, and a trashy 20-something tomcat, respectively, in Black Snake Moan, situated in a small Tennessee town.
Both actors are vital to the raw, emotional power of the picture, especially in their confrontation scenes. Jackson is seen with graying, receding hair and beard, and Ricci blonde and mostly scantily clad easily delivers her finest work since The Opposite of Sex.
While the movie as a whole perhaps is too glacial, it's not from the outset where Black Snake moans in a bold, cinematic way. Ricci's desperate Rae has her way with her National Guard lover (Justin Timberlake of Alpha Dog) on his way to Iraq, and then with a very muscular drug dealer (David Banner).
Before long, the encounters ladled with much hedonistic activity leaves her in an unconscious, bloody state. That's when Jackson's farmer Lazarus, bitter and broken from a cheating wife, takes her in by chaining her to the radiator. Some kind of caretaker.
Lazarus got the lowdown on Rae's anxiety disorder from the imposing Tehronne. Once a blues man at Bojo's Juke Joint, Lazarus tells her, "I am to cure you of your wickedness." The film's title, one might guess from looking at the promotional standee, has, in part, to do with an itch Rae has, which she offers in exchange for liberty. It also calls Lazarus "when he's ailing." His plan is to get Rae out of her wild condition, and the net result is like And God Created Woman southern-style, but not as strongly exploitative as one might think.
After a while Brewer lets the proceedings simmer a bit as the blues man pulls out his guitar, and playing at a bar for the first time in a tavern. A pleasant relationship also develops between Lazarus and a gentle woman close to his age (S. Epatha Merkerson, once of "Law and Order"). Rae will be able to dance in a reckless way, and may be on a path of righteousness thanks to a local preacher (John Cothran, Jr.).
The music on hand here will keep blues fans grooving for a while, even if the drama can't sustain it all in the way Hustle & Flow did through Terence Howard's slick pimp DJ.
Jackson has some of his best dialogue since Pulp Fiction, and there's a telling connection with the drug-induced Rae that Ricci channels with a ferocious sensuality. Both understand the meaning of abandonment, and one, the meaning of abuse.
There's so much pent-up and venting to give off, as the Biblical-named man is compelled to bring this deeply disgraced woman back to life. Black Snake Moan ultimately finds its sensitive, emotional side from betrayal, though one won't easily forget Ricci, her tiny body with oval face bearing a sharp, mostly untamed libido rarely seen on screen.