Black Snake Moan [retro review]

“If you wanna quit on me, I understand. But please don’t.”

The Scoop: 2006 R, directed by Craig Brewer and starring Samuel L Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake

Tagline: Everything is Hotter down South

Summary Capsule: A lonely old bluesman discovers a promiscuous, self-destructive young girl half-dead on the side of the road and takes a bet from Colonel Pickering that he will be able to transform her into a refined Victorian lady. There are chains involved. It’s pretty cool.

Al’s Rating: Sin and salvation with sixty feet of chain.

Al’s Review: Black Snake Moan is a movie about broken people. Paramount understood that much. An old man in a wife-beater chaining a half-naked girl to a radiator? If that doesn’t scream “These people have issues,” than nothing does. But they took the idea of these fractured souls and disfigured it. They tore it apart and stitched it back together any way they could to try and trick people into the theater. Their trailers screamed about everything the movie wasn’t. “Look, I’m a sleazy grindhouse flick like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS!” “I’ve got creepy psychosexuality like Deliverance!” “But there’s goofy, crazy southern folk, too, like The Beverly Hillbillies!” “I’ve got something for everyone! Come see me!”

None of these assertions are exactly wrong, mind you. Black Snake Moan does give you a trashy sexploitation vibe. There’s totally a psychosexual subtext going on, too — it’s got a southern girl in her panties chained to a radiator, there’s simply no way around it. And there’s also a fearless element of comedy. Dark comedy, mayhap, or uncomfortable comedy, but it’s there. None of these elements, however, are what the movie is really about. What Paramount couldn’t seem to pick up on, or didn’t want to, was that they had on their hands a mature, intelligent film about connection. It’s a parable about people who are damaged, assumed destroyed beyond repair, learning to connect and learning to heal. That’s tough to squeeze into a trailer, I know, but Black Snake Moan deserves to stand on it’s own two feet and not be pigeonholed by studio buzzwords.

Our story is about Lazarus and Rae, two poor southerners so battered and bruised that they’re about ready to hang up their spurs and call it a lifetime. Broken, defeated, choose any of those words I used up top, they all pretty much apply. Laz (Samuel L Jackson) is a God-fearing bluesman whose wife has recently left him for his brother. You’d think that would supply him with enough material for a five-record deal, but he’s instead hung up his guitar and taken to drinking alone on his meager farm while finding new and exciting ways to destroy his exes’ stuff. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a young girl haunted by a past of abuse and neglect. Her boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), has just enlisted in the national guard, leaving Rae alone with her inveterate memories and chronic fits that find her wrestling against nymphomaniacal tendencies. For anyone who’s ears just perked up, keep in mind this is not “Ooh, however will I ever pay for my pizza?” nymphomania. This is curled-in-a-ball-and-racked-with-self-loathing-Oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-I-did-it-again nymphomania. This is every stupid thing you’ve ever regretted ten seconds after you’ve done it stuck on ‘loop’ for all eternity. Like I said, these people have issues.

Lazarus wakes up one morning to discover Rae, half-naked, feverish, and beaten into unconsciousness on his doorstep. He takes her in to patch her up, but realizing the precariousness of his situation, tells no one. In her delirium, Rae tries to run away several times and Lazarus is forced to chain her to his radiator to make sure she can’t go far when her fits take hold. Some discreet inquiries around town open his eyes to her budding reputation as the girl who will sleep with anything that sits still long enough for her to jump on top of it, and he decides she was not just left in his care for him to mend her physical wounds. He comes to believe that it is his responsibility to cast her devils out and make her into something a bit more respectable. When Rae awakes and discovers her predicament, she disagrees. Vehemently.

The wonderful thing about Black Snake Moan is that it’s not afraid to look at all the different sides of its characters’ situation. There’s obviously something tremendously scary about what’s going on here and the movie faces that, but knows that Lazarus isn’t Buffalo Bill making a woman suit in his spare time, either. He’s noble-minded but shaken, and looking for anything to hold onto that’s indicative of something greater than what he is surrounded with. He makes a bad decision — the movie portrays it no other way — but he is not a bad man and has no evil intentions for the girl he finds himself holding captive.

Nor is Rae just a damsel in distress. She is very much a prisoner of her demons and a clearly a product of years of belittlement and indifference by nearly everyone in her life, so it would be plenty easy for the script to pander to and pity her situation. But she is, instead, nothing short of a monster. She’s crude, callous, spiteful and pathetic, all rolled into a barely-clad, 5’1″ foulmouthed package. She does and says plenty of things that will make you feel Lazarus’ private production of My Fair Lady isn’t such a bad idea and that it probably should have been done a long time ago.

Interestingly, with all the movies that the ad executives wanted me to associate with Black Snake Moan, my thoughts continually returning to Lost in Translation. They’re very different films, of course. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters were those sort of effete well-to-do aristocrats who face alienation with an extra glass of merlot after dinner. Laz and Rae are from The Dirty South. There’s no silent suffering here; they deal in violence and drugs, screaming blues music, and cramped, sweaty bars. But the connects and disconnects are the same. A fundamental part of these people has been lost, and, slowly, they have to learn how to find it again, not just in each other but in others around them as well. It’s okay to hope and it’s okay to trust, and if you can do both of those things than it’s okay to believe in something again, too. They don’t emerge perfect people — no one has suddenly become a bastion of charity and goodwill at the end of the movie — they’re just better.

That’s not bad for a movie about a girl chained to a radiator.

A mature, and, uh, intelligent film about, er… I’m sorry, what was I saying again?

Intermission!

  • Sam Jackson loves his biblical monologues, huh?
  • Lazarus has a purple guitar, making it one in a long list of purple items carried by Samuel L Jackson characters.
  • Rae sings “This Little Light of Mine” towards the end of the movie. Appropriate, no?
  • Notice the Last Supper painting over the radiator
  • I like the chain on Rae’s dress at the end. Now an anchor instead of a restraint.
  • At the end of the credits, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dedication to R.L. Burnside, who died during preproduction in 2005. His grandson, Cedric Burnside, and his “adopted son,” Kenny Brown, play in Sam Jackson’s band during the bar scene.
  • Sam Jackson learned to play guitar for this movie. All the music Lazarus plays was done by Jackson himself and none of his singing was lip-synched.
  • The archive footage in the film is of famous bluesman Son House. House was a musician, convict, and preacher over his nearly sixty years of fame and was a direct inspiration to the music of artists Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. His music, specifically Death Letter and his arrangement of John the Revelator, has been most recently covered by the White Stripes.
  • Based on the novel Silas Marner, by George Eliot

Groovy Quotes

Lazarus: Cain slew Abel. Slew him out of envy. God put his mark on Cain for his sins. Is that what you want, Deke? Is that what you come here for? I’ll do it for you. All you gotta do is say it again. Say you love me.

[discovering she is chained up]
Rae: Whatever you want, you know, if you wanna have me, you can take me. I’ll do whatever you like. Just, when you’re done, I gotta go. Y’ know, ‘cause I can’t stay here with you.
Lazarus: God has seen fit to put you in my path. And I aim to cure you of your wickedness.
Rae: You some kinda pervert?
Lazarus: No, ma’am.

Lazarus: Right or wrong, you gonna mind me.

Reverend R.L.: Ima tell you something and it’s just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about heaven too much, like it’s some kind of all you can eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There’s sinning in my heart, there’s evil in the world but when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness, not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live or no more good to do but today, right now… What’s your heaven?

Lazarus: That voice in my head. Every time I think it’s gone it comes howling back. Calls me when I’m ailing, when I can’t find my way home. Lost in the pines. I calls it the black snake moan.

Lazarus: How you feelin’?
Rae: You know how you feel when you come out of a bad hangover? You know, like you can open your eyes a little more?

Rae: If you wanna quit on me, I understand. But please don’t.

Reverend R.L: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside my childish ways. And now, these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Lost in Translation
  • True Romance
  • Hustle & Flow
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