You probably wouldn't expect bad acting from the likes of Jackson and Ricci, who prove themselves time and again in other films. But as Lazarus, Samuel L. Jackson takes the swagger and cool that he uses so often in lesser films (THE MAN, anyone?) and hides it in a beer belly, mole, receding hairline and deep love of the Lord and the Blues that rolled together make for a heartbreaking, tortured hero. His old man's gait, the ripped nail on his thumb all paint the picture of a man who's lived hard, but hasn't found a way out of the dark in a long time. The badass still comes through, but it comes from his eyes and the painful life he's lived rather than quips and bullets. Ricci brings the same vulnerability to Rae, but wraps it up in a swirling mass of sexuality that is at once incredibly arousing, sickening, and impossible to turn away from. She writhes, moans and clutches, exposing not only skin, but blood and bile and the horrible events that color her past. And the first half of the movie, while she and Jackson circle and attempt to take the measure of one another, rolls on a high that seems impossible to come down off of.
It does, though. After the most powerful moment of the film, during a fierce lightning storm Rae clings to Lazarus's leg while he screams out the song "Black Snake Moan" as the lights and amplifier go on and off, the film loses a little steam. After so much tension and sweat, the light of day looks a little pale. The film also momentarily diverts as we learn the fate of Rae's true love Ronny, kicked out of the military for anxiety attacks. Justin Timberlake holds himself up pretty well, taking on another role that should help to balance out the Teen Beat image he has in his day job. He plays just another sufferer, but one that is saved through the efforts of the two who saved themselves and each other first.
Director Craig Brewer wisely stays away from anything that could come off as laughable. One scene in particular when Ricci "attacks" a young boy coming to the farm to pick up some beans could have been played for laughs or for shock value. Instead, Brewer takes us away from the action and focuses on Jackson's quiet words with the boy afterwards. It's a great scene for so many reasons: we see Jackson getting another chance to play the role of father (something that is obviously at play in his dealings with Ricci), but we also get to see the temptation that's still in his heart. Lazarus would never act on any impulses towards Rae, but at this point in the film Jackson is still lost, still trying to find his own footing, and his jokes with the boy about losing his virginity show this balancing act. It's right after this that he finds his voice, his path, and stays true to it for the remainder of the film.
But that's where BLACK SNAKE MOAN beings to feel soft. It's the heat and passion of these two characters flailing and reaching that draws us in - when things start to calm down, you're still edgy from the excitement before. The final scene brings everything back to its original focus. It's another outstanding moment for Ricci, and Timberlake assists in taking the scene to a great conclusion. Coupled with fantastic music, daring imagery and a sweet, morale center, BLACK SNAKE MOAN turns into a great second film for Brewer, and a chance for see something fresh and original early in the Spring.