Black Snake Moan

You know you’re in pulp fiction territory — and not in a good, Tarantino kind of way — when you see the poster for Black Snake Moan: done up like the cover of a schlock novel, it’s all downhill from here. Ricci turns in a much, much better performance than this unpleasant piece of misogynistic trash deserves; so too do Jackson and Timberlake.

Ricci is Rae, the town slut, who loves Ronnie (Timberlake) but the second he’s gone off to be a hero in the army, she’s out on a bender that sees her taking drugs and shagging anything that breathes, with the result that Ronnie’s best friend rapes her, beats her and leaves her for dead just outside Lazarus’ (Jackson) picturesquely poverty-stricken shack. And what does Lazarus, who’s just been left by his wife for his younger brother, do? Why, he tethers her to the radiator with a length of chain. This precipitates a long sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in a porn film. Ricci wakes up and discovers that she’s chained up and, not unsurprisingly, goes ballistic. I’m no prude, nor anti-porn nor po-faced but this scene in which she’s brutalised on the end of the chain made me feel sick.

Actually, a lot of this film made me feel sick. Rae is abused by her father (in hazy flashback) and, although he doesn’t have sex with her, by Lazarus; and of course by the local drug dealer and assorted other male low-life. She’s portrayed as being in thrall to her nymphomania: when she’s recovered and unshackled, Lazarus takes her out to a gig in a bar in which he plays the blues while she does filthy dirty dancing with just about anyone who comes into her orbit, including a couple of girls. And for most of the film, Ricci wears nothing but a pair of very skimpy white knickers and the shortest cut-off t-shirt known to woman. It’s as if the moment she’s off the leash (and even when she’s on it) she is defined by nymphomania, throwing herself at any male with a pulse, including Lazarus and even a very young boy. Hardly a rounded or balanced portrait of a woman.

The hypocrisy of this movie is that it pretends to be redemptive; yet none of the women (Rae, her mother, Angela the pharmacy assistant) has even an ounce of self-determination. They’re all driven by the men. Rae is propelled into sluthood by her father and then into her bender by not wanting Ronnie leaving; her mother fails to prevent the abuse and then denies that it happened; and Angela, although apparently saintly, thinks nothing of committing a fraud with medication to give to Lazarus. Even the redemption, when it comes, is at the hands of men. Rae marries Ronnie and Angela is last seen holding hands with Lazarus. C’mon, Ange, you’re holding hands with a guy who thinks it’s OK to chain an injured girl to a radiator? It’s a shame that so much good acting and lovely photography was wasted on such repellent misogyny. Jackson is superb, utterly credible as Lazarus, while Timberlake effortlessly defines the movie’s only moments of tenderness. And Ricci is outstanding, though you expect nothing less from this actor.

Picture the scene. He’s just got an Oscar nomination for Hustle and Flow so writer-director Craig Brewer is sitting down with the studio. They’re toasting his success. So much praise for what’s only his second picture? Why this young man is one we need to nurture, they said. Maybe. So what’s next, Craig? they said – maybe – between puffs on cigars and swigs of excellent brandy. What else can we help you with?

Chances are the expected answer was not a Deep Southern pot-boiler about a nymphomaniac who shags her way around until she meets an ageing bluesman who cures her by chaining her to a radiator. Cue the sound of jaws falling open and cigars hitting the expensive boardroom table… Still, Brewer got it made, so well done him. To what purpose though is still unclear: it’s been weeks now and I’m still not sure whether it’s any good. The young girl in question is Rae (Christina Ricci), loose of limb and looser of morals, but with a history of being abused that, in the script’s Psychology 101 way, is a shortcut for her being a complete slut. She might be pinning her hopes on Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, in another good performance, the annoyingly talented git), the one man who seems able to control her urges, not least as he has problems himself but, with Ronnie out of the picture in military boot camp, Rae’s soon overcome by her strange lusty mood.

This time though, having binged on drink and drugs and disastrous sex, she’s been left half-naked and unconscious on a country road, just outside Lazarus’ place. Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson) once played the blues but now, with his recent marriage break-up and all this farm work to do solo, he’s living them. He takes Rae in, nurses her to health and gets a hint of her deeper issues. That’s when he decides he won’t let her out if she’s going to carry on this way so he does what anyone would do in the circumstances and chains her to his radiator, like a cold turkey cure for sex addiction. And through this unorthodox treatment, Rae and Lazarus help each other towards redemption. Aside from the race issues that some will undoubtedly raise – irrelevant really – Black Snake Moan is going to cause some fuss. You can’t have a film featuring your lead actress chained, sometimes willingly, to a radiator and expect to escape the sexism allegations. Is it justified? Yes and no. Rae frequently comes across as the sanest person in the village, a prisoner of her circumstances rather than immoral for immorality’s sake. But then she does spend much of the film in panties and chained to a bloody radiator…

The metaphors are also heavy handed. The awakening of Lazarus? Thanks to the ‘Rae’ he lets into his life? Puh-lease. There are more subtle touches though: Lazarus lectures Rae on vengeance, because his wife has left him for his brother and he needs to rage at someone else, preferably female and preferable lacking in moral fibre. Rae has long been abused but this extreme case – chain, padlock, radiator – is an abusive cure, and it comes from the first man she’s met who wants nothing from her. Both Jackson and Ricci are enormously committed to their parts and the strength of their performances find the humanity within, even as the exaggerated plot threatens to push them to the very edge of rationality. But the question remains. To what purpose? Black Snake Moan is bizarre, never boring – but ultimately somewhat bemusing.

Official Site
Black Snake Moan at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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