Hold On To Your Butts: Black Snake Moan

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Though 2006’s Snakes On A Plane contains one of Samuel L. Jackson’s most famous movie lines, another film with “Snake” in the title which premiered later that same year has one of Jackson’s most accomplished performances. Black Snake Moan was released by Paramount Vantage in March of 2007 against the biker comedy Wild Hogs, which made more in its opening weekend than Moan could amass during its entire domestic run. While that’s dispiriting, it’s not exactly difficult to see why; Paramount Vantage tried to market the film with a titillating poster and trailer that drastically shortchange its thematic complexity. Yes, it’s a movie whose risqué subject material was bound to raise some eyebrows, but its provocations are backed by compelling characters and a nuanced storyline about addiction and redemption.

Jackson stars as Lazarus Redd, a former blues musician-turned-gardener whose wife Rose (Adriane Lenox) is leaving him for his brother Deke (Leonard L. Thomas) after an affair happening behind his back. Coming back from town one morning, he discovers a young woman named Rae (Christina Ricci) beaten and unconscious on the side of the road. Lazarus tasks himself with tending to Rae’s fever and wounds and when she deliriously runs out of his house one night, he does what he considers to be the sensible solution: chains her to his radiator to keep her from running away. He then learns that Rae’s sex addiction is well known around town now that her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is away on National Guard deployment. Ever the devout man, Laz keeps Rae confined at his house even after she recuperates, seeing it as his spiritual duty to rid her of sin.

In a lesser movie, this premise could set Lazarus up as a religious kook who’s gone off the deep end and, naturally, we’d root for Rae to break free from his secluded farm. But Black Snake Moan doesn’t settle for those kinds of rote characterizations and routine plotting. Writer-director Craig Brewer is more interested in the ways that these two people, who seemingly have nothing in common, will draw out their surprising similarities in close quarters. Though Rae initially tries to use sex to parlay her way out of her waist chain, she soon finds that Lazarus has no interest in a sexual relationship with her. Both characters have emotional wounds that have festered over time and, though the circumstances are highly unusual, they find that they can help heal one another in their time together.

Jackson is sensational as Lazarus, a man who has tried all sorts of ways to battle his demons and has found the closest thing to salvation in the form of blues music. The veteran actor took months to learn the guitar from scratch, even getting some help with his chops from the prop master while on the set of Snakes On A Plane. Not only does Jackson play several songs on guitar in Black Snake Moan but he also accompanies himself with blues singing as well. In the style of Son House, who pops up in archive footage interludes at a few points in the story, Jackson alternates between singing and speaking when belting out his tunes. He may not have the most conventionally pleasing voice but Jackson is pitch-perfect in terms of allowing the character to cathartically sublimate his anger and sadness.

When it came to crafting the character, Jackson drew from experiences he had with family members who grew up in the Deep South, specifically his grandfather. That could be the main reason that his work here comes across as deeply-felt and personal, tapping into an emotive range that Jackson seems to reserve for his finest on-screen work. “We ain’t gonna be moved,” he growls with conviction after he makes the decision to hold Rae captive by chain. In trying to exorcise her demons, Lazarus knows that his methods aren’t legal, and maybe not even moral, but feels it’s the only way to get the evil out of someone he sees as “possessed” by sin. Jackson is brilliant at balancing Lazarus’s religious convictions with his deep sense of sympathy for Rae’s tragic background.

Ricci has a challenging role here, not only as someone who is struggling immensely with infidelity and nymphomania but also fighting hard against bettering herself. Rae is a character for whom seduction is practiced out of habit and is conducted like a first language, until she finds that Lazarus isn’t fluent. Walking right up to the line of exploitation, Brewer has Ricci in very little clothing for most of Black Snake Moan and I would understand some being upset with how Rae as a character and Ricci as an actress are portrayed here. It’s an unquestionably brave performance that attempts to authentically capture the experience of having a specific kind of sexual dysfunction that could easily be played for cheap thrills in more immature films.

Black Snake Moan is an immaculately-crafted two-hander between a pair of broken souls who are chained together through their shared pain and freed by hard-fought understanding.


Early on in the new thriller Eileen, we’re tipped off to the fact that something about the title character may be a little off. Played with tremulous longing by Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen creeps on a couple making out in a cliffside car and does little to resist sexual urges for guards at the corrections facility where she works. Anything to get away from the cruddy reality of her Massachusetts life in winter, bogged down by the obligations to look after her alcoholic father Jim (Shea Whigham) and to put up with the hectoring of her co-workers. Then comes Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist whose platinum blonde hair shines like a beacon in Eileen’s bleak existence. The two share cigarettes and conversation at work and soon become friends outside work as well but something darker lurks below their burgeoning relationship.

Based on the acclaimed 2015 novel of the same name, Eileen is an intoxicating film noir that oozes with both sumptuous style and pernicious undercurrents. Though the film takes place in the 1960s, it more closely resembles Technicolor white-knucklers of the 1950s like Niagara and Dial M For Murder in terms of narrative inertia and intent. The title card sets the mood brilliantly: a static shot of Eileen’s dashboard as her crummy car slowly fills with exhaust, with Richard Reed Parry’s music score emulating urgent Bernard Herrmann-style strings underneath. Director William Oldroyd lays out the plight of Eileen’s daily life so thoroughly in the opening scenes that when Rebecca shows up that one fateful day at Moorehead prison, we’re as lured in by her beguiling opulence as Eileen is.

Though she’s performed variations on the femme fatale role in The Dark Knight Rises and Serenity, Hathaway in Eileen is playing a more archetypical seductress like that ones that screen legends Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner perfected in the 1940s. Marked by worldly candor and breathy beauty, her Rebecca has an agenda that isn’t much more obvious to us in the audience than it is for Eileen on-screen but it’s alluring either way. While Hathaway plays all the right notes of mystery and eroticism in her performance, her Massachusetts accent too often falls prey to Transatlantic and British dialectical detours. It’s an aspect of the film that’s a bit hard to shake off, since her character is meant to be casting a spell and the wrong-sounding word or phrase can quickly shatter the illusion.

McKenzie, on the other hand, gives the more accomplished performance overall and, specifically, weaves together a linguistic timbre that is absolutely authentic from start to finish. Whether her character is murmuring words under her breath or shouting obscenities, her articulations and non-rhoticity remain consistent. You would never know that McKenzie’s native accent is New Zealand, given that she pulls off various dialects so convincingly; she’s done Cornish in The King, “standard American” in Leave No Trace and German in Jojo Rabbit. She also does a British variation in Last Night In Soho, another film about a mousy introvert who gets taken in by a blonde beauty. She’s only 23 but given what McKenzie has shown us so far, her acting talents will continue to astonish for years to come.

If Eileen falters for some, it’ll be with its audacious third act, which pushes the storyline into even psychologically darker territory than the film noir genre tends to go. It’s not the most tactful of shifts from Oldroyd but the husband and wife screenwriting duo of Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom wrote the book upon which the movie is based, keep things from veering too off track. DP Ari Wegner also tinges the frame with an inviting warmth that’s a well-conceived foil to the grimy and cold street-level settings. Though there are narrative and performance elements that keep it from greatness, Eileen is a frosty-paned noir throwback that titillates at every turn.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Wonka, a fantasy musical starring Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane detailing the origin story of chocolatier Willy Wonka as he dreams of opening a shop in a city renowned for its sweet confections.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Finestkind, a crime thriller starring Ben Foster and Jenna Ortega following two estranged brothers as they hatch a deal with a Boston crime syndicate, with unexpected consequences for the pair as well as their father.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is The Family Plan, an action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Monaghan about a former top assassin living incognito as a suburban dad who must take his unsuspecting family on the run when his past catches up to him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup