On the surface, Black Snake Moan looks like another riff on the exploitation film genre. You've probably seen the posters or trailers that feature Christina Ricci in chains while Samuel L. Jackson looks stern. However, I saw an entirely different style of trailer before Daddy's Little Girls -- one that downplayed the white-chick-in-chains aspect and instead excerpted more low-key scenes with Jackson's character and his wife, his minister, and so on. And writer-director Craig Brewer says that Black Snake Moan is his "blues" movie in the same way that Hustle & Flow was his "hip-hop" movie. Black Snake Moan is a hybrid of genres, mixing blues music with exploitation-film visuals. The genres combine to tell a story about people struggling to define their place in the world, whether it's through sex or music or the way they relate with a community. The combination should be jarring, but for the most part Brewer manages to pull it off, with the music helping to tie everything together (or chain it all together).
The movie opens on an older couple, Lazarus (Jackson) and his wife, as she quietly but firmly tells him their longtime marriage is over. He rages and eventually alienates himself from his friends and community, finding only partial respite in playing his guitar at home, alone. This in itself might make a pleasant low-concept relationship movie set in the rural South. But the story is entwined with that of Rae (Ricci), whose fiance Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is leaving town for a military career, and she's scared of what she might do when left alone. Sure enough, Ronnie's barely left town when Rae jumps in bed with the local drug dealer. She hits the town but runs into trouble and is left half-dead on the side of the road ... right in front of Lazarus's house. Suddenly Lazarus is left to deal with a feverish, battered but still sparky young nymphomaniac. That's where those chains come in.
At times, the structure of the plot led me to believe that we were definitely in grindhouse-film territory, leading up to a violent and explosive end. Brewer definitely moves plot elements and character in place to set up that type of climax. However, the movie ultimately shifts back into a focus on the characters themselves. It would almost seem like a cop-out or a cheat, but Brewer wants us to remember that his movies are about real people, and inserts a note of hope. The same was true with Hustle & Flow ... the movie teeters on the edge of tragedy but manages to pursue character redemption instead.
Black Snake Moan trades heavily in symbolism -- Lazarus is being brought back to life, Rae learns to sing "This Little Light of Mine" -- and perhaps the characters' actions are not literal as much as they are outward manifestations of their inward emotions. When his wife leaves, Lazarus tears up her garden and rips out the one line of communication in his house, the phone. After Rae's rendezvous with another man, she walks home through town in a way that tells us everything we want to know about her character, as well as the small-town world in which she's stuck. The visual imagery in Black Snake Moan is rarely subtle: Rae wears a ripped up Confederate flag t-shirt throughout a large portion of the movie, and of course the chains are obvious.
Music plays a significant part in this movie -- not only the soundtrack, but the way the characters are affected by hearing and making music. Like DJay in Hustle & Flow, Lazarus cannot help but make music. The blues are all over this film, both audibly and spiritually. Brewer dedicated Black Snake Moan to Mississippi blues musician R.L. Burnside, whose family helped Jackson play the blues for the film. That's all Jackson's own playing, too -- he refused to use hand doubles in the guitar-playing scenes. Who knew that Samuel L. Jackson would be so convincing as a small-town blues guitarist?
At times I was worried that Lazarus would slip into the type of character that Spike Lee calls the "magical Negro," who heals all the hurts of the white folks, but fortunately Jackson and Brewer gave the character enough depth and background to avoid that pitfall. It's not a typical role for Jackson, but he carried it off convincingly. Ricci transformed herself so throroughly into a trashy Southern slut that I forgot which actress was playing the role. Another pleasant surprise was Timberlake, who gave a fine performance as Ronnie, the nervous fiance who wants to fight in Iraq.
Black Snake Moan is typical Southern storytelling: some outrageous exaggeration, memorable characters, narrative shortcuts to carry you to the best parts, and a hint of a moral. You might not believe it, but you had fun hearing about it. The film succeeds because underneath all the symbolism and the outrageous window dressing, we can glimpse real people in the characters.
[For another take on Black Snake Moan, read James Rocchi's review from Sundance. In addition, Ryan Stewart interviewed Brewer about the film.]