There’s no doubt about it, some movies just make me flat out uncomfortable. When I saw the poster for Craig Brewer’s (Hustle & Flow) drama Black Snake Moan, with a scantily clad Christina Ricci being held in chains by Samuel L. Jackson, I had little desire to see the picture. The tagline, “Everything is hotter down south,” made me think of some sort of trashy exploitation flick with better actors than usual. Instead, Black Snake Moan turned out to be a flawed character study about abuse, redemption, and the power of the blues.
Christina Ricci, who rarely seems to play it safe on the screen, stars as Rae, a southern girl in tight shorts and an even tighter wife beater. Scarred by the sexual abuse of one of her mother’s former boyfriends, Rae has an insatiable sex drive. Left to her own devices after her Army man boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is sent off to Iraq, she satisfies her needs with any male available. Ricci plays the part of a young, nubile nymphomaniac very convincingly. She exudes heat with her bottled blonde hair, big eyes, white Confederate flag-adorned cutoff top, and white panties. From the first few minutes of Black Snake Moan the viewer is soundly convinced that Rae is a fierce and jaded girl, with no faith in her fellow man.
Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a deeply religious man with strongly-held convictions, is the polar opposite of Rae. Under normal circumstances there is no reason in the world why these two people’s paths should cross. However, when Rae is savagely beaten by a male companion and left for dead on the side of the road, it is Lazarus who discovers her lifeless body. Horrified by her condition and buoyed by his beliefs, Lazarus decides to nurse her back to health. As soon as Rae wakes up and tries to seduce him, Lazarus makes the decision to cure her of her wickedness. In a scene that is an eerie role reversal of the slavery era, African-American Lazarus chains Rae to a radiator in an effort to control her animalistic sexual drive. For me, it was a bit unsettling watching a half-naked girl chained to a radiator as a man spits out biblical scripture. Alas, I don’t think Craig Brewer’s goal as a filmmaker is to make his viewers comfortable. And if he can get a message in there and give the story a semi-pornographic edge, that’s all the better.
Strange as it may seem, this arrangement seems to work out for both characters. In Lazarus, Rae gets a gruff but caring father figure; Lazarus, still deeply wounded over his wife’s leaving with his brother, gets someone on whom he can vent both his tremendous anger and Christian amity. While Brewer is definitely trying to get a certain level of erotic mileage out of his story, the overall theme is one of resurrection. Lazarus’ name is the first clue. Despite all of the raw sexuality that runs through Black Snake Moan, the Rae/Lazarus relationship remains chaste. Despite the film's hard edge, Brewer manages to give his characters heartfelt emotions outside of all of that. After Lazarus plays a surprisingly touching song for Rae on his guitar, her joyous (but not sexual) dance shows just how much the two of them have triumphed over the depths of despair. In the final scene, Brewer casts an opaque shadow on the twosome’s newfound peace. Will Rae and Lazarus be able retain their salvation? The director leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
The DVD quality is very good. The video transfer is excellent and the picture quality is sharp. The 5.1 Dolby surround sound is clean, crisp, and clear as a bell. The blues tracks used throughout Black Snake Moan will pop out of your theater speakers.
A standard making of documentary, "Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan", gives us an inside look at the creative thought process that went into making the film, with particular emphasis on Brewer's love for the blues music he used throughout. "Rooted in the Blues" is a featurette that introduces us to the blues players who came together to create the impressive soundtrack. "The Black Snake Moan" is another featurette that highlights the filming of the title track scenes and chronicles Jackson's efforts to learn to play guitar. Five deleted scenes are also included, with only a minor flashback of Rae's meeting Ronnie at a party of interest. Brewer's commentary is thoughtful and provides further insight into how his own personal anxieties helped him create this film.