Black Snake Moan
Director : Craig Brewer
Screenplay : Craig Brewer
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Samuel L. Jackson (Lazarus), Christina Ricci (Rae), Justin Timberlake (Ronnie), S. Epatha Merkerson (Angela), John Cothran Jr. (Reverend R. L.), David Banner (Tehronne), Michael Raymond-James (Gill), Adriane Lenox (Rose Woods), Kim Richards (Sandy), Neimus K. Williams (Lincoln)
It may have been hard out there for a pimp in Craig Brewer's 2005 Sundance fave Hustle & Flow, but it's even harder out there for an angry, sexed-up spitfire named Rae (Christina Ricci) in his follow-up Black Snake Moan, a neo-exploitation fable that is so consciously calculated to push buttons and inflame the id that it's surprising the film doesn't spontaneously combust in the projector.
Brewer seems to have ingested every Southern-fried sexploitation cheapie he could get from Something Weird Video and reimagined them as the framework for a redemption story so ludicrous that it works on a purely gut level. As part of the recent move to bring the grindhouse circuit of 30 years ago to the mainstream movie marketplace (epitomized in the works of Rob Zombie and the upcoming Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino twofer Grindhouse), Black Snake Moan does more than its share to resurrect the specter of the steamy Deep South and all its associated pathologies.
Black Snake Moan takes place in the sultry backwoods of Tennessee, and its seamy visuals are overlaid with a heavy slathering of Delta blues music from the likes of Son House (who appears in old footage during the film's opening minutes talking about sexual jealousy), R.L. Burnside, Bobby Rush, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Just as he did with hip-hop in Hustle & Flow, Brewer makes the blues in Black Snake Moan a fundamental component of the film's texture and atmosphere; the music doesn't just comment on the visuals, but informs them and elevates them into something deeper and richer.
The story opens with Rae's upstanding boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), heading off to the military against her will, and we immediately see why. He hasn't been gone a minute before she--quite literally--starts to go into heat and heads off to get her itch scratched by Tehronne (David Banner), her small, decaying town's hulking pimp/drug dealer. Apparently, she's had that itch scratched by just about everyone in town, including Ronnie's friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James), who after a party attempts to rape Rae, but then settles for beating her senseless and leaving her for dead by the side of the road.
The next morning she is discover by (symbolic name alert!) Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a down-and-out former bluesman-turned-farmer whose younger wife has just left him because he makes her feel "old." Lazarus takes Rae into his house, nurses her back to health, and then, doing what any decent, Bible-reading man who wants to cure a feisty young woman of her slutty ways would do, chains her to a radiator. And I mean chained, with a huge, iron chain clasped around her naked midriff and shackled together with a huge padlock. This is the film's central conceit and its most audaciously provocative image, race-reversing as it does the history of slavery while at the same time stripping the image of its historical connotations.
Brewer is up to something provocative here, but not in the way you would think. His set-up is pure exploitation sleaze, but the follow-through is, shockingly enough, all heart. He has plenty of fun with his outrageous scenario, especially with Rae spending the majority of the film not just chained up, but scantily clad in little more than a teensy cut-off tee shirt (featuring the Confederate flag, natch) and a pair of white panties (Lazarus doesn't think to buy her proper clothes for several days). While the hothouse imagery is torn right from the grindhouse screen, Brewer treats it playfully, especially in an amusing scene in which Lazarus takes Rae for a "walk" through his field. But, he also treats it seriously; for as much skin is on screen, much of it is bruised and hurt, which undermines any simple titillation factor. And, along the way, he carefully nudges the story toward redemption, suggesting that Lazarus's extreme measures are a necessary corrective for Rae's ways, which are unmasked as (surprise, surprise) the unconscious reaction to a lifetime of sexual abuse.
This could all too easily be seen as an offensive conceit exploiting real-life sexual trauma for exaggerated screen imagery, but the film works because the performers make it feel real. Samuel L. Jackson, with his gray-streaked hair shaved back to make him look bald, dials down some of his trademark aggressiveness and internalizes it into a form of righteous conviction that doesn't feel self-righteous. He has his moments of weakness, which are crucial to keeping his character from becoming a caricature. As Rae, Christina Ricci has the even more difficult task of humanizing a sexploitation conceit, and to her credit she does. She uses those enormous saucer eyes to convey both Rae's testy demeanor and her internal damage. The film also features a strong supporting cast, including S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) as a kindly pharmacist who might be Lazarus's romantic redemption and John Cothran Jr. as Reverend R. L., who both supports Lazarus and serves as a moral guide for his more extreme behaviors.
And that, ultimately, is the word that best describes Black Snake Moan: extreme. From its racially charged and sexually suggestive title, to its bold mixing of the exploitative and the heartfelt, there is not a moment in it that feels anything less than overheated, even when it's at its sweetest. It's audacious, to be sure, but in all the right ways.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Paramount Vantage