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It’s disguised itself as a trashy, fun exploitation flick but Black Snake Moan is credible morality tale about damaged people helping and healing each other. I’m not saying it isn’t also trashy exploitation pic, Christina Ricci does after all, spend most of the movie half-naked and chained to an elderly blues man’s heater. What Writer/Director Craig Brewer has done is layer in all that deeper stuff, the kind of material usually reserved only for courting Oscars, beneath the giddy, guilty pleasures of a down and dirty Southern Gothic veneer.
It starts when god-fearing bluesman Lazarus finds (Samuel L. Jackson) a half-naked, whored-up party girl (Christina Ricci) lying in the road by his driveway. He carries the beaten up, high, and unconscious hottie into his house, nurses her back to physical health, and soon decides the writhing, sexed-up, drugged out girl’s mental health is his responsibility as well. Laz takes the whole southern hospitality thing a little too far, chains the girl (who he finds out is named Rae) to a radiator and when she wakes up tells her she’s staying until he cures her sickness.
Except Rae isn’t the only one with a sickness in Black Snake Moan. Hers is only the most obvious. She sticks everything she can find up her nose, drops her pants for every man she sees, and her awakening starts only when she encounters Lazarus, one of the few men to spurn her advances. Lazarus has a different kind of sickness. Dumped by the wife for whom he sold his heart, his soul, and his music to make her happy, Lazarus sees in Rae something of what he’s been missing.
Black Snake Moan is smart and soulful but it’s also red hot. The movie burns with the sweaty heat of the deep, deep south. It’s not afraid of sex, nudity, and smoldering, immorality. The film also knows a thing or two about beautiful, bad ass cursing. Fuck flies out of Sam Jackson’s mouth better than it does from just about anyone; when he says the word it’s poetry. Brewer’s movie uses his talent for vulgar language to full effect. His character is an instantly iconic southern figure, an elderly, hardened farmer who loves god, dirty music, and foul language in almost equal measure. This is Sam’s best role since Pulp Fiction, it’s the kind of part I’d always imagined him playing after working for Tarantino, it’s just taken a while for it to happen.
What really surprised me about Black Snake is how flat out funny it is. Not because the movie cracks a lot of jokes, it doesn’t. The laughs just happen, whether from shock over where the story goes or from simple release of tension. They’re part of the mix that makes it work, but the real unifying force of the film is the music. Soulful, down and dirty blues grinding its way through the movie as the soundtrack of Laz’s life. It’s sweet sound that stitches the film together.
Brewer’s movie is not without minor flaws, but it erases them by being completely unique. You’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t imagine anyone duplicating it. The film is sex and soul in equal measures; sensationalism and bad taste harnessed for noble purpose. In a strange twist of irony, Black Snake Moan also seems to have something to good to say about religion. That’s ironic, since none of the hardcore religious zealots who spend so much time complaining about how their faith is portrayed is ever likely to see it. You can’t enjoy its moral message without the eroticism, so if you’ve got a problem with kink consider chaining your morals to your car and leaving them at the door. The movie’s a big bomb of sensuality and southern grit. Brewer seems to relish mucking around in genres that other respectable filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch. His last movie, Hustle & Flow, was about a sympathetic pimp. This one is about a white woman finding freedom by letting a black man chain her to his radiator. I can’t wait to see what he does next.