Craig Brewer may not have taken the world by storm with his breakthrough feature Hustle & Flow (2005), but he certainly managed to make people sit up and take notice. Now, he’s back with Black Snake Moan, a pulpy morality tale that plays like a fever-dream mix of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell—with a dash of William Inge for good measure.
Though the film is undeniably an overheated oddity on any number of levels (one of those “who did they make this for?” affairs), it’s also an undeniable huge step forward for Brewer as a filmmaker. His control of the film medium is much more assured here—and much more daring. Whether or not it elevates Brewer to the status of cinematic poet laureate of the lower depths of the South is a matter of individual taste, though I doubt there are many Southerners who will not recognize at least vestiges of reality within the film’s outrageously overstated plot. After all, isn’t the whole “Southern Gothic” business a central product of Southern culture?
Things don’t get much more “Southern Gothic” than Black Snake Moan, with its central grabber image of an older black man chaining a young white woman to the radiator in his house. Brewer is certainly aware of this and of the pulp fiction underpinnings of the entire enterprise. Just look at the film’s terrific poster that emulates the cover of a trashy magazine or novel of 50-plus years ago, and the movie’s tagline, “Everything is hotter down South.” This is pure exploitation material—and like much material of its kind, it uses the material to arrive at an upbeat (or at least hopeful) conclusion.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lazarus (OK, so Brewer ain’t subtle), a retired, slightly reformed blues musician who runs a small truck farm, eking out a living at a local tailgate market. When the film starts, his wife is leaving him (for his own brother no less), while Rae (Christina Ricci in a performance that defines “bold”) is dealing with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) going off to National Guard boot camp. The problem is, you see, that Rae has (to put it mildly) an insatiable appetite for sex, and she knows full well that as soon as Ronnie is out of sight she’ll be out attempting to satisfy that appetite.
After visiting her sometimes lover, a local drug dealer, she takes on what appears to be an entire football team. But her troubles don’t really start till she dares to suggest to Ronnie’s “best friend,” Gill (TV actor Michael Raymond-James), that Gill is jealous of her ability to snare guys he’d like to have himself. This tactless (possibly nerve-hitting) remark gets her beaten up and dumped in the road near Lazarus’ house. Finding her there the next morning, Lazarus takes her home—only to be terrified when she tries to come onto him. Dashing out of the house, open Bible in hand, he manages to ward her off and sets out to find out who she is. Combining what he learns with her actions, he does the natural thing: He chains her to the radiator and informs her, “I aim to cure you of your wickedness.”
Preposterous stuff? Oh yes, and it gets more so as it goes along, culminating in two key scenes—both testaments to Brewer’s growing strengths as a bold filmmaker. The first has Lazarus plugging in his old guitar and performing “Black Snake Moan” for Rae. (Few filmmakers would dare to stage this in the midst of an accompanying thunderstorm.) The second finds Lazarus back performing his music—while Rae gets down on the dance floor—at a local juke joint. Incredibly—but in keeping with this kind of material—this will all lead to a conclusion steeped in regeneration for not just Lazarus and Rae, but also for Ronnie. What starts off as trash exploitation ends up being a surprisingly sweet fable about our need for other people and our often unrealized ability to help each other.
It doesn’t all work. Brewer tends toward a pretty simplistic view of psychological behavior (abused children becoming wildly promiscuous) and his writing gets structurally clunky near the end, with the returned Ronnie disappearing from the narrative for a conveniently and unbelievably long time and Gill improbably disappearing altogether once he serves his narrative function. But more often than not, Brewer’s film is a successfully quirky—even twisted—mix of sex, sin, redemption and sometimes “inappropriate” comedy. It’s clearly not for everybody. Some people will be offended by it for any number of reasons. Some critics have found it misogynistic, but this seems a stretch—or at least a misreading—to me. Is it trash or art? Maybe it’s a bit of both. It’s certainly one of the most “alive” films out there. Rated R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke