Skip to main content

Black Snake Moan

Of course you’re not going to catch a film like Black Snake Moan in theaters. Why would you? You have to save your pennies for the summertime, when the sequels are dumped out into the alley for you to gnaw on. Then, after you have enjoyed your effete pirate adventure or racist motorcycle comedy, you can check out the new PDA covers at the Verizon store, hit Chili’s for a few discount margaritas, and head home in time to watch “Cold Case,” which you shrewdly TiVoed. If you play your cards right, there won’t be a single time this season that you are left out of a water-cooler conversation or made to ponder the meaning of a Leno joke. Movies like Black Snake and The Lookout will soon be made extinct, of course, as will unironic T-shirts and fistfighting. But in your cozy, simple world, not unlike a dog’s, those things will barely register. As long as you can still sneak a half-caf latte into Shrek 4, you and Hollywood have an understanding. For those of you who saw Black Snake Moan, or another great-but-fiscally-unfortunate film at the multiplex, I apologize. That rant is obviously not aimed at you. It is just a shout in the dark; a radio-signal into a desolate corner of space, hoping that there could be someone out there listening. When a hilarious, intelligent film like Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan fails at the box office, it sends the message that “smart doesn’t sell.” While terribly cynical and single-minded, it might also be true. People are dumb, and the mental exercise it would take to climb out of that cellar is far too frustrating for them to undertake. Read a book on my day off? Hell no. I’m going to the movies, and it better not be one of those hoity-toity indie films, either. Get me Spider-Man! In the future, a great idea, like the one at the foundation of the film in this review, will go very little towards getting it made. It will be like the SATs: once the most important thing on the application, now a footnote underneath time served as yell-leader and head of the Prom Committee.

Such a fabulous, novel premise does Black Snake Moan have, that even in a sea of despair, it found its way to theaters. I mean, where else have we seen the tale of a stoic black man saving a wayward white girl by chaining her to his radiator? Viewers can almost see the hysterical comedy and anarchic drama writing itself. Director Brewer does an outstanding job of keeping all the lightning in his bottle, and not letting anything drift either way: to the absurd, or to the clinically realistic. Instead we get a sort of fable, complete with non-preachy moral, about two people’s struggle against their demons. The story revolves around both Rae (Christina Ricci), a beautiful young Southern girl who has just seen her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leave for Iraq with the National Guard, and Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a pious ex-blues man whose wife of ten years he has recently caught with his brother. Both have problems that are exacerbated by their respective splits.

Rae gets “spells,” which would be most commonly referred to as “uncontrollable horniness.” She has slept with nearly every man in town, not excluding drug dealers or Ronnie’s best friends. Of course, her promiscuity is accompanied by excessive drinking and drug use, and has led to a rather thorny relationship with her mother. Lazarus drinks also, but his problem is really just reclusiveness. He is a loner who long ago gave up playing music and does light farm work all day on his secluded property. His anger keeps him from going anywhere, as he feels confronted by his wife or brother at every turn. At one point, his brother actually does come around to apologize, and Laz nearly etches a broken bottle into his face.

A night of pills, booze, and “the itch,” (as one character refers to it) leaves Rae beaten and unconscious on a gravel road. Fortunately, that road is right out front of Lazarus’ place, and he scoops her up and unknowingly tends to her. He cannot revive her, though at times she awakens and hallucinates before passing back out. Lazarus takes it upon himself to go to the drug store and find her medicine for her fever. While there, he gets a tip on someone that knows her (Tyrone, a short-term boyfriend) and gets her story from him. One particularly violent outburst later, and Lazarus knows what he must do. He sees his radiator, finds a sturdy chain, and there begins our fable.

It is not enough to say that the second act is funny. To just say that wouldn’t do it justice, and also would make one think that the comedy comes just from the obvious humor of the situation. What arises from Rae’s coming to and finding herself leashed by Lazarus is so much better than it might seem. Sure, it’s hilarious and brilliant by itself, but Brewer, Jackson, and Ricci add so much to it, there needn’t even be a chain. Speaking of Jackson, he is once again amazing. I understand that he parodies himself in films a lot, and that his persona would even be compelling in a Werther’s commercial. Still, this part is owned by him. If I could, I would tear Oscars out of the cold, undead hands of past Best Actors just so I could present them to him. His portrayal of Lazarus is witty, sad, and redeeming, and his blues-playing is not bad either. A song written for the film, entitled “Black Snake Moan,” is sung beautifully by him in a scene that must be watched by you right now.

Ricci is also impressive in her role as the violent and sexual Rae. To see that lethal combo displayed onscreen so well is to think back to my first girlfriend: how sweet and scary love can be. Her reaction to being chained is hysterical, as she goes through every understandable emotional state in rapid succession. But all her attempts to bargain (including seduction) are rebuked by Lazarus, as he aims to “cure her of her wickedness.” Their relationship grows beyond the chain eventually, but it is the roughly twenty minutes when she wears it that are the most pleasant in the film. Many things happen after that, as some great gags involving Laz’s houseguests and Rae’s finally putting on some clothes unfold. Then the emotional heart of the film pokes through, and the two are forced to confront their fears about themselves, and what tragedies brought them to where they were.

The only thing I can say in the negative here is that everything wraps up a little too neatly. Once the chain is off, we need to deal with some serious stuff, and that is perfectly fine. The downside is that those things we deal with, which are preluded so well by the two characters in Laz’s home, just come and go almost instantly. Conflicts between Rae and her mother, Laz and his love interest, and Ronnie’s discovery of Rae’s habits all flare up and are either resolved or ignored within minutes. Still, the feeling we get is not incomplete. It is more like the resolution of a good fable: everything that must happen eventually does, but in a mildly childish way.

It’s not that I hate sequels and blockbusters, per se, it just seems like they cast a deadly shadow over some really great work. We are all film fans here, and we all want the good ones to succeed. Take my advice and see Black Snake Moan, for it is definitely one of the good ones. If you don’t have the time, just cancel your Pilates class and turn off “I love the 80s,” you stupid turd! Sorry, I did it again. I’m cool, I’m cool. It’s not you. Just please, see the movie. I don’t much care for all the features a DVD provides, considering everything a director could tell you should be up onscreen already, and deleted stuff usually is cut for a reason. However, the disc of Black Snake Moan is slightly less superfluous, even in its director’s commentary, where auteur Craig Brewer gives some good details and is generally not a boring guy. Though I will say that those who have seen this and his earlier work, Hustle and Flow, may have a difficult time reconciling the fact that he is a white dude. Not a requirement to make a good southern drama with a black protagonist, just a little surprising.

There are a handful of deleted scenes, all of which give a bit more information about the characters. None are terribly necessary, although the final one hands Justin Timberlake a little more screen time. His character, Ronnie, is not deeply fleshed-out, and I feel that is for the benefit of the film. Ronnie is dead weight in some scenes, and seems boring in others. This may or may not be Timberlake’s fault, since the story is made for Ricci and Jackson, but I still didn’t want to care about him. If people like his dancing and singing, maybe he should do that more.

Three featurettes focus on the themes of the movie, and go into elaborate detail about the music that is utilized in certain scenes. Like Hustle and Flow, Black Snake leans a lot on its score, but instead of boring rap tunes, it features stirring, soul-punching blues. “Rooted in the Blues” displays the creative relationship between Brewer and composer/songwriter Scott Bomar. They wax poetic about the ties blues music has with the Deep South, and how that music influenced the writing of this picture. The fun here is watching Jackson, who really sings and plays on the soundtrack, learn the tunes.

“The Black Snake Moan” featurette is a detailed overview of the pivotal scene in the middle of the film that spotlights the gut-wrenching title song. The origins of the scene and its significance to the characters are laid out here. I guess this is as good as anything to do a featurette on, and it is a pretty sweet portion of the film. Lazarus serenades Rae one night with a wicked thunderstorm as accompaniment, and Rae begins to see him as a protector. My earlier point, however, is validated by the interviews in this DVD section. It’s all up there on the screen, so why go over it again? Lastly, there is “Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan”. Basically, what you didn’t get from everywhere else is here. Other than that, it’s boom mikes and director’s chairs. Craig Brewer knows what he’s talking about, though, so you might like it.

It is the fate of a film this smart, well written and well acted to remain unseen by the public. Black Snake Moan is a tough sell for a Friday night crowd. No movie this year has dealt with race more deftly, but just the hint of controversy is enough to keep some away. Then there is the sex, the nudity, the young woman/older man thing, and the fact that some real heavy shit goes down. I say, whatever. If you skip Black Snake Moan because of that stuff, then you will be missing out on Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance to date, in a film that is at times the funniest and most interesting I’ve seen in ages. You know what? I’m not going to stand for it. What gives you the right to watch crap instead of this? You’re killing cinema, you prick! Don’t think you’ll get away with it. One day, when you leave your home and head off to Wal-Mart, Samuel L. and I will be waiting in your driveway. And we will have fuckin’ shotguns.