A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 7
BLACK SNAKE MOAN
2007, R, 116 mins.
Samuel L. Jackson / Rae:
Christina Ricci / R.L.: John Cothran Jr. / Ronnie:
Justin Timberlake / Angela: S. Epatha Merkerson
After leaving BLACK SNAKE MOAN I thought it was either the worst film I’ve seen this year or one of its finest.
I found myself ultimately adhering to the latter sentiment.
Craig Brewer’s film is proof-positive that great performances and a tactful and astute man behind the camera can save a premise from being idiotically absurd and laughably silly. This is one of the most captivatingly peculiar films that I've ever seen. It contains themes and subject matter that could easily have been the ingredients of a trashy, B-grade, exploitation film. It has just about everything but the kitchen sink thrown in: copious amounts of sex, nudity, foul language, and innuendo.
Oh, it also has blues music and a raging nymphomaniac.
If it is not the oddest offering of 2007 than I don’t know what is; it’s also one of 2007’s most deceptively brilliant films.
Very rarely have I ever been witness to a film where its sensationalism and lewdness are revealed in equal proportions to its soulful and purposeful narrative. With the wrong attitude going in, BLACK SNAKE MOAN will appear to be sleazy and unsavory filmmaking that throws out taboos like they didn’t exist. One of its main characters spends most of the running time of the film in her cut off shirt and panties chained at her midsection to a radiator. Her captive is an aging, cynical blues singer hoping to cure her of her ravenous and seemingly unquenchable appetite for sex. This woman wants it so bad that she often writhes around on the floor looking more like a cat in heat than a human being. At face value, BLACK SNAKE MOAN approaches seediness and runs right past it into lurid offensiveness.
However, the miracle of the film is that - when it starts to get rolling and the particulars are established - it manages to transcend its tastelessness and instead becomes a rather sobering tale of personal redemption. Very rarely has a movie so rigidly turned my initial expectations around within its first few minutes. Once you start to overlook the outrageousness of its story you slowly begin to inhabit its universe and relate to its troubled and tortured characters. Brewer is able to infuse in this tawdry tale rather poignant themes of loneliness, despair, and companionship. I absolutely love when films toy with expectations and become something more than you were anticipating. There are times when this film had me simultaneously shaking my head in utter disbelief as well as being genuinely moved by its honesty and sincerity. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is a film that confidently takes calculated risks and is fearless, and that’s what makes it a triumphant effort all around.
The film is also a stellar effort in the sense that it contains two of the most thankless and risky performances in a long, long time by Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci. Jackson has always been an appealing actor for me, but he has often allowed himself to squander his talents in decidedly lackluster affairs. In BLACK SNAKE MOAN he arguably gives a career high performance that instantly makes you forget such Herculean lapses of logic on his part, such as FORMULA 51, xXx: STATE OF THE UNION, THE MAN, and FREEDOMLAND. With such a decidedly mixed resume as of late, it’s so wonderfully refreshing to see Jackson sink his teeth into and truly inhabit a role to the point of disappearing in it. Then there is Ricci, who gives such an authoritative, captivating, and ego-free performance as her sex-starved character that she deserves a medal for cinematic bravery as much as she does an Academy Award nomination.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN derives its title from a 1927 Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but its overall story gets most of its inspiration from an 1861 novel, SILAS MARNER, by George Eliot. That book focuses primarily on a religious outcast that tries to “save" a young girl while dealing with his own issues of inadequacy and loneliness. The young girl in it is tied to the man’s house with a cloth in order to set her straight…the hard way. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is remarkably similar, but in its case a rather large chain replaces the cloth. The man in MOAN is not named Silas, but Lazarus, which is kind of strangely fitting. In many ways, he sort of rebounds and “resurrects” himself from an emotional death and is reborn by pledging himself to the horribly troubled young woman. In a simple manner, BLACK SNAKE MOAN is about two people coming back from “death” and being reborn.
As the film opens we are introduced to Rae (Ricci) who is a terribly bad vixen of a girl who has had a rather dysfunctional past. Her father is nowhere to be found and her mother would rather not even have anything to do with her. Her only small salvation is through her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, surprisingly effective here) who is a young man with his own sorted past. The two hit a snag in their relationship when Ronnie decides to enlist in the army and immediately is assigned to leave small town life. This is emotionally wrenching for Rae. Ronnie is barely gone for a day before she immediately starts to drift back into her old ways. You see, Rae is into drugs, booze, and sex…in a big, big way. Her life has been an endless cycle of abuse, so her own self-afflicted abuse makes all the sense in the world to her.
Rae likes…nay…loves…okay, scratch that…is morbidly obsessed with sex. When she gets some, she still thirsts for more. When she feels an urge get a hold of her, she grotesquely contorts on the ground, scratching herself and screams. She is the poster girl for incurable nymphomania. One night she goes out partying and gets really drunk. When one of Ronnie’s old pals tries to drive her home he decides to have his way with her. Curiously, she refuses him and makes fun at his…well…inadequacies. He subsequently pummels her mercilessly and abandons her in a field, left for dead.
Then there is Lazarus (Jackson), who also has had all that life has dished out at him, but he still chugs away with discrete intensity and fortitude. He is as deadly serious about religion as Rae is about sex. He was, at one point in his life, a successful and respected blues guitarist with a loving wife. In an early scene his wife sets up the sadness that permeates his life; she has unceremoniously dumped him for another man and all he has left is his crops to farm. He is in the autumn of his life and looks like he won’t make it to another season, that is until he discovers Rae’s body on the road the night after her bloody ordeal.
Lazarus at first is a bit shaken from the ordeal of seeing the half naked Rae lying on the road. He then gathers his faculties and carries her back home and proceeds to nurse her back to health. He buys her some much needed cough syrup, gives her an ice bath to being her temperature down, and treats all of her cuts and wounds. He basically comes to think that his finding of Rae was divine intervention and that God has set him on a path to redeem himself by helping this misfit. Unfortunately, I am not altogether sure if God instructed him on his next course of action. When she awakens and attempts to go back to her “old ways” he grabs a forty pound chain, wraps it securely around her waist, and ties her to his home’s radiator in order for her not to escape. She, of course, thinks that Lazarus is an insane wacko and rigidly resists her captivity (can you blame her). Lazarus thinks otherwise. “Right or wrong,” he tells her, “you gonn' mind me. Like Jesus Christ said, 'Imma suffa' you. IMMA SUFFA' YOU!'" Rae is going to cure herself of her sexual urges…whether she wants to or not.
In terms of unorthodox teaching methods, Lazarus’ deserves the Mr. Miyagi Lifetime Achievement Award.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN is so deceptively effective at balancing its schlock-infested elements with the nobleness of its themes. At its heart is the relationship between Rae and Lazarus and the film is oddly very touching in how these two marginalized individuals grow to understand, respect, and appreciate one another. That is not to say that they don’t have any roadblocks. The two don’t develop a sexual relationship, despite the fact that Rae – in a nympho-induced heat – tries to seduce Lazarus. Instead, they develop something more akin to father and daughter. They are an undeniably mismatched pair (he’s a man of God, she’s a girl of sin), but it is through the experience of being together that they discover their similarities. They both come form different places, but life has wounded both of them. They realize that the only way to heal is by leaning on each other. They are both mistreated by figures that they wish could love them. For Lazarus it was his wife; for Rae it is all of the men that have used and abused her. Both of them are needy and vulnerable, which is why they eventually find salvation through each other.
Brewer skillfully is able to forge a real atmosphere in the film. Aside from its ambitious story and characters, the film is strongly evocative in how it shows a Bible Belt society being underscored by hostility and shame. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is noteworthy for how it manages to infuse some social commentary on despair, race, and ignorance in its story. Like his previous effort, HUSTLE IN FLOW (which fostered such a realistic tone and mood of the pimp ghetto), Brewer is able to create such a resonating Southern Gothic vibe to MOAN. It makes for a good companion piece to HUSTLE IN FLOW. Both are about victimized people trying to redeem themselves and both use music as a civilizing influence. Whereas Terrance Howard used rap to cure his character’s ills, Jackson uses Blues to alleviate his. Both films rightfully use music as a way for its characters to rediscover the meaning and purpose of their lives.
In the wrong hands, BLACK SNAKE MOAN could have been a ludicrously awful bit of exploitation filmmaking. The movie is unreservedly shocking, politically incorrect, and controversial, especially its treatment of its main female character. Yet, the film exultantly rises above its sordid material and throws off its sexually perversity and becomes a searing, life-affirming coming of age story. It is the film’s collision of divergent elements that makes it so inevitably successful. Its bawdy B-grade exterior only masks the film's spiritual and uplifting underbelly. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is daringly original and entertaining as a result. It contains yet another original vision by director Craig Brewer, it carves out Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance in a decade, and it serves up daring and vanity-free Christina Ricci that epitomizes audacity and bravery with her role. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is a film so bizarre and strange that it almost deserves some sort of commendation for the sheer willingness of its participants. In a way, it’s a small little absurdist masterpiece.