Black Snake Moan is the heartwarming tale of how a white-trash crack whore confronts her demons with the help of a backwoods negro who chains her to his radiator. I intend neither sarcasm nor racism—and neither does Craig Brewer, who follows his affable if overrated Hustle & Flow with a hardcore exploitation flick that also happens to be the most impassioned spiritual parable in recent memory. The guy could’ve done anything; like most H&F skeptics, I figured he’d hustle his way into some big, dumb studio picture. Bankrolled by Paramount, starring Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson, and teased into yahoo consciousness via the trailers before Snakes on a Plane, BSM isn’t exactly the quintessence of indie, but it takes bigger chances, make bolder moves, and goes deeper into hearts, minds, addiction, and redemption than any half-dozen Half Nelsons.
Did Brewer conceive the thing as a vehicle for Ricci’s intense, insatiable eyes? They’re just about the only recognizable thing on the former go-to girl for plump sexpot sass, here slimmed down to knuckles and elbows, with hair the color of piss on linoleum, and squeezed into filthy little panties, ass-flappin’ daisy dukes, mangy Confederate T-shirt cut off just below the nipples. Perpetually erect nipples, aching to be sucked, pinched, bit, bled. Her name is Rae. She lives in the funkiest crack of Tennessee goddamn. Ronnie, her lamb of a lover (a brilliantly cast Justin Timberlake), is off to serve (or rather, slaughter) in Iraq. She got an itch ain’t never been scratched. Next-level nymphomania, feeling the urge come on like a hurricane gathering momentum, decimating everything in its path, big black eye of the storm going wide and wider, gobbling up every fuck and drug in sight. Hearty helpings of cock and Oxycontin? Tic Tacs for the ravenous. The girl can’t help it.
Meanwhile, crusty old bluesman Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) has gone half mad with grief. Wife left him for his brother. Drowning his troubles in booze and anger. Wakes up one day, goes for a walk, and finds a skinny white girl beat half to dead in a ditch. Like a gentleman—or a lonely pervert—Lazarus takes her in and nurses her back to health. One night, blotto from six kinds of withdrawal, Rae tries to lam it. Out come the chains and the unbelievably outré reverse-slavery conceit. By now, Brewer’s shown us some fierce stuff in the degradation department, and pushed our noses in the most outlandish race/class/gender representation. What’s this crazy honky think he’s doing? It’s as if he absorbed the criticism leveled at the second sexism of Hustle & Flow and decided to throw it back in everyone’s face times ten. But here’s where BSM switches gears, first by complicating Rae’s rehabilitation with a wild erotic charge—black snake moan, y’all—then doubly complicating it when Lazarus hallucinates his wife in Rae’s place. Brewer keeps his motivations elusive and indeterminate, and keeps us on our feet questioning where the hell this insane material is going.
The answer is simple. Hustle & Flow was a (wack) hip-hop joint; Black Snake Moan sings the blues—hard, long, from the bottom of the gut, slushing around in bile and Jack Daniels and yesterday’s grits, wailing on a slide guitar, thunder, lightning, heartbreak, death, regret, baby Jesus, gravy. Life hurts bad, and Brewer doesn’t shy from real suffering. Snarky retro camp has nothing to do with it. There’s no condescension here. Rae’s road back to something like self-control is hard won, fraught with slippage, as serious and persuasive as the journey of L’Enfant. Brewer’s recipe is solid: home-cooked meals, hothouse blues, God’s love, patience. Ricci’s performance is so fearless, specific, and blazingly committed it carries the second half of the picture over the slight underwriting of Jackson’s character and his clear limitations as an actor. She’s the white-hot focal point of Brewer’s loud, brash, encompassing vision of the soul’s dark night survived, peering into the dawn. That’s right, haters, I said “vision.” And one so honest and healthy and against the grain of indie solipsism and Hollywood cynicism that it’s just about visionary.