The title Black Snake Moan comes from Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song about going blind, and the swampy imagery serves as a beacon of primal anguish for writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow). On the outskirts of Memphis, Rae (Christina Ricci) suffers from an anxiety disorder that causes desperate fits of nymphomania that her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) sates.
But as soon as Iraq-destined Ronnie leaves for boot camp, Rae immediately returns to seeking out promiscuous sex with every guy in her path. Her indiscretion leads to a brutal beating that puts her left-for-dead on a dirt road near the house of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) a former Blues singer turned farmer. Lazarus’ chivalrous decision to risk his own life to save Rae leads him to chain her to his farmhouse radiator for an unpredictable sort of moral, mental and physical salvation.
Brewer’s hard-bitten drama isn’t merely defiant; it spits fire at America’s phony media-fed version of itself. It displays human struggle on an intimate scale that prompts its audience to reflect on their own misconceptions.
Musical legend Son House sets the film’s dramatic framework from a black-and-white clip of him describing how the tension in the Blues “consists between male and female.” The documentary footage cuts to Rae and Ronnie having passionate sex just moments before he leaves for military service. Like a spoiled pet, Rae chases after her boyfriend as he rides away in his best friend Gill’s pickup truck.
After taking a handful of mixed drugs at an outdoor party, Rae accepts a ride home from Gill (Michael Raymond-James) and makes the mistake of offering herself up to him. Her boyfriend’s pal takes advantage of the situation to violently act out his insecurities on her and leave her for dead.
We know Rae as simultaneously contemptible and compatible but are drawn to her as a protagonist we care about. The T-shirt that she wears for much of the film has an American flag and a Confederate flag crossing one another as a rebel symbol that would make Hillary Clinton fume. Rae isn’t just any voracious slut of local renown; she is a force-of-nature freedom fighter on a mission to screw the world into submission.
Lazarus is a farmer suffering grave emotional pain over his wife’s decision to abandon their marriage of 12-years to take up with his brother. He drives a tractor over her old rose garden after meeting with her in a restaurant in an attempt at reconciliation that she unceremoniously refutes. As Lazarus will soon point out to his neighborly preacher R.L. (John Cothran), this is a place where “being black and nearby” are cause for punishment.
When Rae awakens in Lazarus’ house and realizes the debt she owes him, she offers herself to him. His clear refusal of sex shifts their paradigm into a realm that neither of them understands. It isn’t until she tries to run away before recovering from her wounds that Laz (as he’s called) chains her to the radiator with a long heavy chain that repeats Brewer’s unnerving image system of a snake representing the tool of an avenging angel (Lazarus).
The other instrument that Lazarus uses is pulled out from beneath his bed in the guise of an old Gibson guitar. His reconnection with the guitar after years of not playing forms a basis of musical associations that enter Rae’s consciousness like rungs on a ladder toward a different kind of physical release.
Craig Brewer is an American auteur in the Martin Scorsese sense of the term. Like Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Christina Ricci’s anti-heroine is treated with a respect and patience that only her creator can preserve. But unlike Johnny Boy, Rae has a chance.
Black Snake Moan is not the best film that Craig Brewer will ever write and direct, but it comes from the most original and independent filmmaker out there. MTW