A Dream Deferred 

Chains, the Blues, and That Black Snake Moan

Okay, so Black Snake Moan? That movie with Samuel L. Jackson tying up Christina Ricci with a giant chain? Not what you're expecting. That's the most important thing, so I'm busting out with it now, here and at the forefront: The trailers'll make you think Black Snake Moan is a loud, exploitative-on-more-than-a-few -levels flick, and yeah, that's the film's hook. But about a third of the way through, Black Snake Moan takes a detour and becomes something else entirely: a good-hearted, unpredictable, funny, and surprisingly tender character study. It's excellent.

Writer/director Craig Brewer's previous film was Hustle & Flow, one of the strongest films of 2005; chronicling the life a small-time pimp (Terrence Howard) with big dreams of hiphop stardom, Hustle & Flow pulsed with vibrant life, dangerous characters, and thumping bass. But for all of its hard-edged charms and solid craftsmanship, Hustle never deviated from its conventional story. While Black Snake Moan bears some similarities to Hustle—just as hiphop's bass and rhymes knitted Hustle together, here the blues bind Brewer's characters and themes—they're radically different films, with Moan proving richer and more complex.

Ricci's Rae is—there's no other way to put it, really—the town slut in an unspecified shithole in the South. A relentless nymphomaniac, Rae goes crazy when her boyfriend, Ronnie (an unexpectedly vulnerable Justin Timberlake), leaves for the Army; after a particularly brutal night, the sex-crazed Rae finds herself chained up in the house of blues-playin' farmer Lazarus (Jackson), who aims to cure her of her "sickness." But—surprise!—Laz is every bit as busted, world-weary, and lonely as Rae, and what develops between these two superbly written and portrayed characters is an affecting story of the formative powers of the past and the redemptive ones of the future.

Taking its pulpy setup as an impetus rather than a climax (though there's tons of stuff to unpack in that concept—the obvious sexual and racial issues alone could take years to examine), Brewer instead focuses on something smaller and more daring: A simple story of two really fucked-up, fascinating, and loveable people. It's a striking story, and one that Brewer tells sharply, wittily, and originally. Yeah, not what I expected, either. But while the idea of Christina Ricci in chains might get asses into the seats, it's Brewer's captivating storytelling that'll keep 'em there.

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