review for Black Snake Moan on AllMovie

Black Snake Moan (2007)
by Jason Buchanan review

You have to hand it to Craig Brewer -- not only is he a filmmaker who isn't afraid to court controversy, but he's also a director who possesses the ability to coax incredibly fearless performances out of his actors as well. Love it or hate, Black Snake Moan isn't quite the slice of neo-backwoods exploitation that the lurid-looking trailers would suggest -- yet upon viewing the film, it's plain to see how Paramount Vantage would be at a loss as to how to market such a defiantly unique film. Equal parts pulpy guilty pleasure and soulful meditation on the pain of lost love, Black Snake Moan opens with two characters reeling from heartbreak and carefully moves forward to detail how they ultimately find the strength in one another to move beyond their suffocating setbacks. At its core, the film is a surprisingly tender two-piece character study that may surprise viewers who came in expecting a raunchy piece of unrepentant sleaze. Though no one who sees the film is likely to deny that it is by turns brutally funny, intentionally over-the-top, and playfully controversial, Black Snake Moan is also disarmingly endearing. From the tenuous romance that develops between Samuel L. Jackson's God-fearing bluesman and the town pharmacist (memorably played by S. Epatha Merkerson) to the dysfunctional bond between Christina Ricci's afflicted nymphomaniac and her anxiety-prone boyfriend (a woefully miscast but reluctantly tolerable Justin Timberlake) and the thunder-and-lightning musical exorcism that serves as the film's electrifying centerpiece, writer/director Brewer consistently impresses by allowing his characters to define themselves through their actions as well as their words. While any other actor spouting lines about redemption and wickedness would likely come off as merely laughable, one-time weary Pulp Fiction hitman Jackson delivers them with a conviction that, while undeniably humorous at times, also conveys an unexpected measure of gravity. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing Jackson's role, and with Black Snake Moan, his fans are truly in for a treat. The same goes for Ricci as well, who becomes practically unrecognizable as the wickedness of her character's past clashes violently with the righteousness of her well-intending captor. Likewise, John Cothran Jr., Michael Raymond-James, and hip-hop producer-turned-actor David Banner all turn in memorable supporting performances as the large-hearted town preacher, the deceptive best friend, and the straight-shooting local drug-dealer. Though the plot itself isn't entirely unpredictable as the gears get into motion, it's a testament to Brewer's skill as a writer that one is never truly sure of precisely how the events will unfold as the pieces of the story gradually fall into place. For those who were curious just what Brewer would come up with next as the credits to Hustle & Flow began to roll, Black Snake Moan proves a satisfying follow-up that may prove to be far too original and unconventional for its own good.