The South isn’t just in Craig Brewer’s heart but underneath his fingernails as well, and with Black Snake Moan he gives his home region a kick-ass modern exploitation film to call its own. Whereas hip-hop was the groove underscoring Brewer’s overvalued Hustle & Flow, it’s the blues that infects his latest, a sonic substitution that goes hand in hand with the writer-director’s storytelling maturation from a Little Pimp That Could fable to his current tale, which ultimately exudes skepticism over the possibility for personal transcendence and redemptive happily-ever-afters. Yet before such conclusions can be drawn about the filmmakers’ evolution (which also includes a more finely honed and controlled aesthetic), first one must make it through the provocative—and occasionally borderline-misogynistic—content that he serves up in bucketloads. Drenched in explosively charged imagery, Black Snake Moan is exploitation cinema of the grungiest, nastiest, and thus finest order, delivering a volatile batch of extreme sex, extreme profanity, and—most of all—extreme racial and gender dynamics. A B movie with an A-list cast, it’s an audaciously confrontational, button- and boundary-pushing work, marked by a sharp wit and a gleeful desire to see just how much it can get away with.
As it turns out, that’s quite a lot, thanks in large part to Christina Ricci. Left to her own devices after boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) heads off to Iraq, notorious blow-up doll Rae (Ricci) finds herself powerless to repress her nymphomaniacal itch, temporarily satiating her carnal appetites with anyone who has a pulse and an erection. Sporting filthy blond hair, a body that’s all sharp, skinny angles, and often nothing more than a teensy Confederate Flag-adorned cut-off top and white panties, Ricci embodies Rae with debased fierceness, her giant eyes radiating a voracious, self-destructive, animalistic sexual hunger. She’s a bitch in perpetual heat, so, naturally, after being beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, she’s discovered by a churchgoing farmer and former blues singer named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) who, horrified by the girl’s condition—and, after she awakens, her unbridled libidinous cravings—chains her to his radiator like a dog in need of housetraining so as to cure her of her wickedness. It’s slavery role-reversal with a porno twist, featuring a grizzled, scripture-quoting African-American as plantation massa, and a feisty, semi-nude white girl as his captive, the latter a feral creature apt to snatch and swallow up any unsuspecting virgin visitors to her new abode.
In this contentious arrangement, Rae, turned rotten by childhood abuse from one of Mom’s boyfriends, gets a caring but stern father figure; Lazarus, still bitter over his cheating wife’s desertion with his brother, gets someone at whom he can direct both his anger and his Christian benevolence. Brewer, meanwhile, initially treats his scenario as a vehicle for sleazily amusing and erotic kicks. Lazarus’s name is a tip-off to his role as an agent of Rae’s—and, via their chaste relationship, his own—resurrection, and the crudity of the bibilical reference is indicative of Black Snake Moan‘s charm-through-rawness, which permeates everything from Rae crawling like a mutt across Lazarus’s living room floorboards, to her wrapping herself in chains on a couch as a means of staving off her relentlessly impure thoughts. Yet despite the fact that the rowdy narrative itself is composed of spit, sweat, writhing, weeping, growling, and grinding, the film nonetheless treats the emotions of its characters and situations with surprising seriousness, thereby bringing touching tenderness to its odd couple’s gentle embrace after Lazarus strums a song for Rae, and palpable heat to Rae’s euphoric dance at Lazarus’s bruising, blistering comeback show.
Intimately familiar with his milieu, Brewer doesn’t strain to oversell his setting’s dusty, sticky, so-hot-you-only-need-wear-a-wife-beater atmosphere. Similarly, his camerawork is less showy than in Hustle & Flow, here the director’s primary stylistic flourish being a series of well-calibrated juxtapositions and match cuts linking his protagonists’ concurrent paths. Since Rae and Lazarus’s relationship is, at heart, a dual exorcism, the story is forced—to its detriment—to progress past its electric, incendiary girl-in-chains middle act and toward a wrap-up that’s light on out-there material and heavy on heartwarming healing. Ricci’s ability to deftly segue from hellion viciousness to urgent desperation partially offsets this predictable and unfortunate plot development, as well as helps compensate for skin-deep turns by an only adequate Jackson and Timberlake. Yet what eventually gives heartrending intensity to Rae and Lazarus’s spiritual journey from the dark, stank, STD-infected bowels of individual hell to the sunshiny warmth of mutual renewal is the filmmaker’s apparent distrust of his upbeat conclusion, his final scene casting ambiguous light on the attainability of sustained salvation. Brewer’s prior film may have argued that it’s hard in the South for a pimp, but with Black Snake Moan, he confirms that what’s even harder is finding peace with one’s own inner demons.