Black Snake Moan (2007)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James
Directed by: Craig Brewer
I had the idea that I could do something topical for this faux-holiday by reviewing a romantic movie. The only problem is that I haven’t exactly been watching any romantic movies of late (not that I ever make it a habit). So looking at the list of movies I had recently watched for possible reviews, I decided that this one best met the criteria. And really, what’s more romantic than a movie about a former bluesman turned farmer who happens upon a trashy nymphomaniac white girl whom he chains to his radiator to cure her of her “sickness”? I’d be surprised if Hallmark didn’t already have a card for it.
But seriously, this movie? Is fuuuuuucked up. Brought to you by Craig Brewer, the man who previously brought to light the horrible plight of America’s pimps, Black Snake Moan features a typically fiery performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus, the aforementioned former bluesman, and a brave performance by Christina Ricci as the bechained Rae. Brewer presents a southern gothic take on the blaxploitation genre, a movie that is as horribly misogynistic as the plot description implies, yet so stylized and over-the-top that it also serves as a commentary on misogynist portrayals of women and their sexuality in film. It’s both an example of blaxploitation and it turns the genre on its head. It’s one of the most overtly sexual American studio movies to come out in the past few years, with Ricci spending much of the film writhing in her cropped t-shirt and underwear (or less) like a cat in heat, but it also has a rather conservative undertone to its message and themes. It’s a series of contradictions that makes the movie whatever you want it to be, and whatever your opinion is of it, you’re probably right.
And I kind of dug it for that. It’s starkly original, which in itself is a breath of fresh air, with ambitions that are clearly evident even if they aren’t always met. The best element of the movie (well other than that bit about “Ricci spending much of the film writhing in her cropped t-shirt and underwear (or less) like a cat in heat”) was that above everything else, Black Snake Moan was a blues song come to life. From the ridiculous premise, the God versus Satan approach applied by Lazarus, the driving basslines in the soundtrack, and the call and response tempo to Lazarus and Rae’s interactions, the movie is straight out of the Mississippi Blues movement, with all the audacity of a song about devil women and the men who love them.
It’s a flawed film to be sure. You basically just have to go with the leaps the scripts throws out, like when Rae’s “sickness” causes her to violently shake and undulate until she can scratch her itch, and it’s hard not to be more than a little bit embarrassed by the entire concept of the film (with Lazarus breaking Rae of her wildness as though she was a too-spirited stallion). The movie loses a lot of its steam as it develops, transforming from a trashy oddity to an overly earnest mentor story, and could probably use about 20 minutes shaved off its running time to maintain its energy. But it succeeds in establishing a unique atmosphere that allows you to accept some of the outlandishness, with performances (particularly from Ricci) that force you to look past the more lascivious elements of the story to reveal the genuine heart beneath it. It’s certainly a memorable film, one that may wind up surprising you even more than its intentionally scandalous opening act. I can’t quite decide if it’s a brilliant mess or simply a mess, but I can’t help but admire it a bit for that.