Black Snake Moan
Reviewed in March 2007
Director: Craig Brewer. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, John Cothran, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael Raymond-James, Neimus K. Williams, Kim Richards, Adriane Lenox, David Banner, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Clare Grant, Amy Lavere. Screenplay: Craig Brewer.

Photo © 2006 Paramount Vantage
Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan bends its knees, lowers its shoulders to the ground, rolls onto the balls of its feet, and then blasts into a full-throttle sprint into every hoary (and whorish) cliché that you can imagine about Southern blues, sugar shacks, corner stores, subsistence farms, lonely and big-breasted nymphomaniacs, priapically endowed black men, African-American religiosity, rural drug dealers, the contexts and legacies of sexual abuse, combat anxieties among young soldiers, the proprietary impulses of men (with the exception of preachers), the masochisms of women (with the exception of unfaithful, castrating hellcats), and the mathematical sum that always results when you add together one football team plus one woman with a growling erotic itch. Black Snake Moan pays a rude, inflammatory call to all of these cultural and narrative imagos, with the notable exception of the one that nearly every review I've read can't stop talking about. I speak here of slavery, a regional legacy that has approximately nothing to do with the narrative or thematic logic by which gray-haired, guitar-plucking, recently cuckolded farmer Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds a beaten, denuded white girl (Christina Ricci) on the road in front of his two-room house. When the girl, Rae, awakes, her nasty night on the dewy asphalt picks up where her lonely, raging, disorienting libido has barely left off, and she races around the house and the yard and the bean-fields before finally imploring Lazarus to fuck her. Alarmed by Rae, ashamed on her behalf, and aggrieved by the loose-woman reputation that (along with who knows what else) she has left in her wake all over the town, Lazarus secretly sequesters Rae inside his house; the iron chain by which he ties her to the radiator helps considerably in this task. He then refuses to let her go until she's purged the evil of her ways.

Note the obvious contrasts between this private exorcism and the relentless, sanctioned publicity of The Peculiar Institution. Note, too, Lazarus' lack of sexual interest in Rae, or the lack of any type of physical or erotic labor enforced upon her inside the house, or any of the other evident ways in which Black Snake Moan simply isn't a story about slavery. I would guess that Brewer, the lead actors, and their various accomplices are having a laugh while they wait for the audience to relinquish our presumptions of racial subtexts and our obsessions with sex as the basis or endpoint of all relationships. Eventually we realize that Black Snake Moan has nothing like a subtext, and that what's happening in the movie is exactly what the characters say is happening: Lazarus wants to cure Rae of her sinful ways. If the movie is a parody of anything, it's of missionary zeal, not dirty old manhood or Southern apartheid. This ain't Manderlay up in here. The crucial fact of Black Snake Moan's jolly and pervasive sense of humor—which is verbal, visual, musical, theatrical, and counter-ideological—brings it much closer to such feminist-absurdist tales of role reversal as Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away or Jane Campion's Holy Smoke. But the roles are never exactly "reversed" in Black Snake Moan, which demonstrates how savvy Brewer is to our generic expectations and how easy it is for him to up-end them, and without selling out Ricci's character completely, the movie is much less facetious toward Jackson's Lazarus than Campion was toward Harvey Keitel's ludicrous PJ Waters. We know that the movie is alert to Lazarus' misguided methods from the comically exaggerated wide-angle shots where he tugs on Rae's chain, and from the way he shuffles his feet when the local preacher comes calling—even as he refuses to lie about what he's doing, and in fact invites the preacher to stay for supper with him and his increasingly bored but also contented captive. Lazarus also keeps the secret from the transparently named Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), so he surely knows he has something to hide. Still, for all that, Lazarus is squarely convinced of the propriety of his intentions, and for a long time the film corroborates him, even risking some highly conservative fifth-act trajectories as if to tamp the lid down on Black Snake Moan's bumping grinds and incendiary suggestions.

In the context of the preceding movie, the obsession with marriage and the literalism of character psychology toward the end of Black Snake Moan (a dredged-up memory of a wife's abortion for Lazarus, a self-conscious reaction-formation against a stepfather's abuses for Rae) is more "shocking" than the quasi-Extremities in Jackson's house or the salacious spectacle of a drunken Ricci playing football in nothing but her panties and a shoulder-guard, shtupping a teammate between downs for good measure. Brewer's detractors have been swift to call foul on his closet misogyny and reactionary essence, but I think Black Snake Moan does more than get away with its unexpected swerves into holy matrimony. For one, it's an inspired check on both of the film's audiences, flummoxing hipsters who only invest in the film for its pippy sheen of hyperbolic exploitation, while simultaneously calling the bluff of puritans who can't imagine what a sweet, promise-keeping dénouement is headed their way after the movie doffs its wolf's clothing. Furthermore, the whipsmart technical team holds fast to its tawdry, sweaty aesthetic even as the screenplay purports to change its tune. Under all that amber sunlight, with all that Southern dust under its nails, and in such a short, short wedding dress, it's hard to believe that Ricci is exactly a "new woman" even after Jackson is done with her. And if we're still wondering, all it takes is one big, big lumber truck and an attack of the roadside jitters to make Rae as well as the audience wonder if the cat, as it were, won't inevitably leap right out of her brand new bag. Musically, Rae's emancipation from the fetters of sexual gluttony has been accompanied if not administered by Lazarus' re-immersion in the wailing blues, but the classic-rock drums and hungry guitar lines of "When the Lights Go Down" by The Black Keys, which underscore the opening sex scene between Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), are never far from a reprise.

Meanwhile, the audience probably hasn't forgotten those shots, planted in Lazarus' point of view, where Rae belts out the same invective as his cheating wife (the Tony-winning firecracker Adriane Lenox), who waltzed away from him and out of a café door in one of the movie's opening scenes—though not before she complains about how the household radiator always burned her legs, and not before he menacingly clasps her arm and warns her that she "had better pray" if she's to avoid holy retribution for her disloyalty. It isn't clear who exactly Lazarus is "redeeming," or how closely he associates Rae with his duplicitous wife, or how sanguine we should therefore feel about the outcome of his efforts as a self-appointed God squad.

Amidst all these built-in thematic enigmas and ironic self-subversions, it can't be stressed enough that Black Snake Moan is a pop-stylistic tour de force, full of robust camera angles and eye-popping colors and edits that play up the humor and the tension of scenes like Lazarus and Rae's tug of war on the morning she wakes to discover her confinement, or her various binges and erotic rhapsodies. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent (Hustle & Flow, Eve's Bayou) cranes up beautifully from a punchline shot where Rae sheds her top and slams the front door while practically leaping on a pubescent neighbor boy who drops by for some beans; we hold on this same high-angle wide shot while Lazarus drives his truck up to the house, saunters onto his porch, and bellows his comic outrage at what he discovers in his own living room, which couldn't possibly be as funny in close-up or in shot-reverse-shot as it is from the wonky God's eye view of Vincent's camera. There's a similarly witty moment later when the sweet, saucy Angela has been coaxed into singing "Balm in Gilead" for Lazarus while they flirt with each other, perched on the back of his pickup truck; in the far background of the same shot, Rae is whipping up some more pandemonium, and it looks like poor Angela's humble but sweet performance is doomed to be upstaged. All in all, the movie doesn't court 70s-exploitation palettes and compositions quite as holistically or aggressively as Hustle & Flow did, but it maintains an adroit sense of timing and depth of field and saturated colors and delicious surprise. As in Hustle, Brewer's affection for his actors and his artful handling of their performances reaches all the way down into second- and third-tier parts like Lenox's spurning spouse, or John Cothran's Ariel, perhaps the most believable small-town agent of the Lord since Kenneth Lonergan's cameo in You Can Count on Me.

Black Snake Moan, finally, is a comedy of faith and faithlessness, in their religious and also their sexual dimensions. Lazarus remains basically steady in his faith even as he is shaken by the faithlessness of others; for Rae, faithlessness itself is a steadying norm (and a recipe for finger-licking fun, to boot), though she isn't so dumb as to dismiss the value of believing in something, or of listening to someone who does. Still, moral panaceas are nowhere to be found, even when the movie seems to spread a clean table and roll out a white carpet for their arrival. Sensual pleasure and human frailty are finally, and agreeably, too dear to the movie's tattooed heart. Black Snake Moan may not have perfect pitch, and not every lapse in musical sense or plot contrivance or political implication can be recuperated as part of the movie's smartly designed rebel-yell against bashful moralists and righteous liberals. The zest and directness of Brewer's style is at all points the best argument in the movie's favor, and the frisky conviction of Jackson and Ricci, separately as well as in their scenes together, adds another layer of forceful artistic vindication for what is otherwise a proud conjunction of a tasteless story with a top-flight look and sound—a consummate act of jerking our collective chain, and making us love it. The Friday night audience hardly knew when to wince or cheer or laugh or suck their teeth or sing along, and though the same could be said of many a lesser movie, it felt like the right response to a film so superficially aimed toward pissing everybody off, but in point of fact so deeply and undogmatically accomodating, inviting all of us inside and showing us a ferocious, winking, and unpredictable good time. B+

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