There are a few dilemmas to contend with even before you start watching ‘Black Snake Moan.’ If you know anything about the movie, you know that, basically, Samuel L. Jackson plays an older man who chains young wildcat nympho Christina Ricci to a radiator to ‘tame’ her. It’s instructive to learn that Christina Ricci was pretty upset with how this film was marketed, and, according to IMDB, became heavily involved with RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), to try to counterbalance Paramount’s lurid campaign. To say that the movie isn’t all about the description above is a kind of truth, but that particular aspect of the story is important nonetheless.
Mr. Jackson plays Lazarus, an earnest small farmer and former blues musician whose marraige has gone south thanks to the seduction of his wife by his own brother. Despite his strong church ties and community friendships, he’s understandably at a kind of wit’s end.
Ms. Ricci is Rae, an extraordinarily ferocious party girl and sexbomb whose first, and best, shot at a real honest-to-God loving relationship, Ronnie, is being shipped off to Iraq. Left to her own devices, she falls back into her old habits. Ronnie’s old friend Gill, torn between the prospect of Rae’s carnal availability for himself and his disgust that she’s so quickly discarded any sense of Ronnie-fostered self-esteem, takes his dilemma out on her by beating the living shit out of her, leaving her seemingly lifeless on an almost-deserted stretch of country road – almost deserted because it happens to be very near Lazarus’ small farmhouse. Laz, waking up from a bender the next morning, happens across her, and spends a few days nursing her back to health.
Laz is familiar with Rae’s M.O. (it’s a small town, after all), and, while tending to her starts out as just the Right Thing To Do, he progressively becomes convinced that she can provide him with a kind of redemption if he can save her from her morally unfettered self-destructiveness. Please trust me when I tell you that At No Time does Lazarus see Rae as some kind of sexual easy-pickings – he’s not remotely interested in gettin’ some – but there are certainly some challenging aspects of gender-power, moral self-righteousness and the personal limits of free will. Rae’s drug and alcohol use, and nymphomania, are, of course, self-generated defense mechanisms against far deeper demons. And Lazarus’ own deeply religious, blues-honed affinities towards those darker demons, as well as his present state of despair, seem to make him uniquely qualified to provide some credible perspective for her. But chaining her to the radiator? Really?
Director Craig Brewer has, I think, an unerring sense of tone in these scenes. On the one hand, we’re in some genuine Russ Meyer territory here (and there’ll be a big effusive blog-entry in the future on The Undeniable Moral And Intellectual Merits of Russ Meyer Films). Meyer’s oeuvre creates a world almost exclusively run by sexually voracious, powerful women wreaking havoc on the culture created by weak-willed and impotent white men, and the almost Shakespearian conflicts They must contend with to preserve their own sense of Dionysian prerogative and free will. We’re also in George Romero-ville in the sense of The Lone Black Man whose moral integrity has been tempered by trials most average white Westerners would never have the resolve to endure, and has become essentially unshakable in the face of huge moral conflict. Brewer refers to these B-movie motifs to evoke our own sense of conflict about Lazarus and Rae. Rae (thanks to the superb Ricci) is a powerful and engaging character. Where the Hell does Lazarus get off subjecting Rae to this subjugation? Sure she’s fucked up, but who decided this guy gets to fix her? And yet, as conflicted and fucked up as he might seem, we never really mistrust him, or get any sense that this situation will put either of them in any deeper trouble. Brewer is smart to set up a few intermittent scenes of Lazarus interacting with other members of his small town – the minister, R.L., and the appealing Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) – in the midst of his own ministrations to Rae, to assure us that he hasn’t become completely unhinged or ostracized.
On the other hand, there’s some strong medicine here, no doubt. At times there’s some ‘Exorcist’-like intensity to Laz and Rae’s relationship. But ultimately, the overall film is a sex-and-blues infused ‘Pygmalion’, where the back-and-forth interplay of psycho-cultural power between these two compelling people eventually changes them both for the better. Yes, there’s a happy ending, but it ain’t the one the marketers want you to think you’ll see. And the happy ending, like life usually goes, still manages to leave you with some maybe-never-to-be-resolved issues trailing behind.