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.