If you want to find “Black Snake Moan,” head down to the crossroads right about at the place where sex, religion, the South, and the blues meet. Writer/director Craig Brewer’s follow-up to “Hustle & Flow” concerns itself with all these subjects, but says nothing new about any of them.
When we first meet Rae (Christina Ricci, brave), she’s saying a passionate farewell to her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) before he heads off to the military. “Black Snake Moan” is set a small Tennessee town where everyone knows that Rae deals with stressful events in her life through compulsive sex. After being sexually assaulted and beaten at a party Rae is discovered half-clothed and unconscious by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former musician living quietly out of everyone’s way. Once he learns Rae’s history, Lazarus decides the best way to help is to leave her (still in her underwear) chained to a radiator in his house. Oh, did I mention that Lazarus is bughouse crazy? Lazarus’ wife (Adriane Lenox) has just left him for his own brother, and in a religious fervor mixed with just a splash of sexual jealousy he vows to chastely but firmly mend Rae’s life.
Where to start with this silliness? Christina Ricci is costumed in a wardrobe Daisy Duke would find immodest; she holds nothing back and gives an emotionally raw, career-best performance. Rae does eventually understand the reason for her sexualized behavior, in a revelation that will surprise almost no one. But the quasi-mystical healing powers that Craig Brewer assigns to Lazarus, God, light bondage, and Son House (a vintage clip of the bluesman discoursing on love opens the film) are so wishy-washy they’re almost meaningless. In the meantime there’s still the troubling matter of that chain.
“Black Snake Moan” is loaded with blues, some of it performed by Jackson in character. Much of it is of the “I shot that no good woman” variety, and the film’s central mistake is to attempt to translate the music’s attitude into a design for living. Even as Lazarus tries to help Rae, he’s afraid of and disgusted by his attraction. Rae begins to regard Lazarus with some affection, but Ricci has given her far too much spirit to make her quick emotional attachment to him credible. “Black Snake Moan” badly wants to be the definitive blues feature film, but it never goes deeper than the obvious and winds up striking a pose it can’t sustain.