Black Snake Moan
Written and directed by Craig Brewer
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake
Somebody tell Craig Brewer the 1970s called -- they want their zeitgeist back.
Sure, on the surface, Brewer's 2005 Sundance hit Hustle & Flow was set in the contemporary American South, in the world of contemporary American hip-hop. But from the moment the title card appeared on the screen -- in that distinctive font that decorated a million personalized Fonzie T-shirts -- it was clear that Brewer was mining the gritty B-movie stylings of the '70s. It was hard out there for a pimp, but it was easy for Brewer to evoke the era where pimps still wore big hats and Technicolor fur coats.
In Black Snake Moan, Brewer seems ready to dig even deeper into the lurid side of 1970s fringe indie cinema, with a concept so wildly inappropriate that you almost want to applaud him. Unfortunately, his fascination with the era doesn't end with its moviemaking. The 1970s were also the "Me Decade," and somewhere along the line Craig Brewer came up with a singular notion: Wouldn't it be cool to mix the roots of "blaxploitation" with therapeutic navel-gazing?
Not so much, as it turns out. It starts off interesting enough, with the kind of blues guitar riff that lets you know something sweaty is about to happen. Jungle drums pound away as Rae (Christina Ricci) has sex with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), in anticipation of his imminent departure for boot camp. A persistent cough itches at her throat, and no sooner is Ronnie out the door then another itch -- this one originating south of the beltline -- has Rae writhing on the ground, and phoning the first guy available for a quickie. She's gotta have it, indeed.
Unfortunately, Rae's also not terribly choosy about where she has it, or with whom, or how much she's had to drink when she has it. Thus does a hookup with one particularly noxious suitor leave her beaten by the side of the road, where she's found by Lazarus Woods (Samuel L. Jackson). The former bluesman is on a path for repentance after his own personal failings, and Laz sees it as his mission to nurse Rae back to health. And if part of that healing includes chaining her to his radiator as a cold-turkey method for ridding her of her sexual monkey, so be it.
So far, so unapologetically sleazy. Brewer glides around for a while through Rae's fever dreams, toying with the idea that she's possessed by a demon. He stages a wild scene in which a desperately horny Rae and an unsuspecting teenager collide in an all-time adolescent "Thank you, God" moment. Lightning punctuates conversations, and Rae does a slow-motion grind at a blues club. It's like Skinemax, but with movie stars!
But even early on, it's evident that Brewer wants to dig into everyone's "motivations." Laz's estranged wife Rose (Adriane Lenox), we learn, committed hard-to-forgive acts. Flickering images during Rae's "fits" point to a history that has pushed her to self-destructiveness. Even Ronnie returns in shame, having washed out of basic training, his penchant for panic attacks having rendered him unfit to serve. The ants in everyone's pants rapidly turn to angst.
It all reaches an apex of ridiculousness when the characters begin sitting together to hash out their feelings, and occasionally burst into anguished tears. No one really needed to be chained to a radiator, as it turns out. Had Lazarus only thought to bring in counseling much earlier, he could have saved the metal a little wear and tear.
This is not to mock those who have experienced genuine psyche-damaging trauma. Real people in real life suffer every day from the effects of physical and psychological abuse, and real professionals can help them. But this isn't the real world. It's a world, set up by Brewer, in which wanton women are chained to radiators -- and that point can't be emphasized often enough, since promotional posters practically scream "this is the movie with the chained-up hot babe." Black Snake Moan proves to be a bait-and-switch that wants to wallow in the rough stuff, yet appear sensitive and socially responsible at the same time, recasting a decade's worth of cinematic anti-heroes as products of dysfunction. Next time I look for throwback '70s cinema, I'd prefer my Melvin van Peebles seasoned with a little less Sigmund Freud.