More snakes for Samuel L. Jackson, but now with heart

By Michelle Welch

Set to greasy blues music and featuring a wide-eyed Christina Ricci and a Bible-quoting Samuel L. Jackson, Black Snake Moan tells the story of the tangled relationship that develops between a nymphomaniac and a righteous bluesman-turned-farmer.

Craig Brewer’s second major feature, following 2005’s Hustle and Flow, is a tale of sin and redemption as two emotionally ravaged people come together and heal each other in the sweaty backwoods of Tennessee. “Everything is hotter down south,” the tagline suggests.

Rae (Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) are a pair of anguished souls searching for love. Before the two meet, Lazarus’s wife leaves him for his younger brother, and Rae’s boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), the only person who calms her wild behavior, is shipped off to serve in the National Guard. One morning, Lazarus discovers a beaten and unconscious Rae lying in his driveway, scantily clad in a tiny T-shirt and underwear.

Afraid that calling the police would endanger him as a suspect, Lazarus decides to care for her. While in town for medicine, Lazarus learns of Rae’s reputation as the town harlot. After experiencing her ways firsthand, he becomes determined to cure her of her “wickedness.” Religious fanaticism grips Lazarus as he chains Rae to the radiator in his living room but gives her enough length to move about the house. Rae’s struggles to break free prove futile, and she is forced to live with Lazarus as he tries to mend her sinful ways. During this time, the two bond over a mutual interest in music, which is later used to channel their emotional frustrations.

Named for a Blind Lemon Jefferson song from 1926, Black Snake Moan takes both literal and metaphorical meanings from the song and translates them to the screen. The song title clearly evokes the erotic imagery of a woman who has sexual desires for a black man; the underlying meaning is that sin is hanging over her head. The song explores the sinful nature of sexuality but offers a path toward redemption.

Rae is a woman who craves sexual gratification. Rae is so traumatized that she has completely rejected her sense of self-worth, so much so that she no longers values her body. Her redemption comes when Lazarus helps her rediscover her self-respect.

Music plays another important role in the film as a substitute for promiscuity in relieving Rae’s anxiety. It is unfortunate, though, that the film does not play up musical therapy, as Brewer does so well in Hustle and Flow.

Ricci gives a gutsy performance as Rae. Her haunting scenes portraying sexual addiction demonstrate incredible command of the role. Jackson also shines as Lazarus, spouting much of the film’s witty dialogue.

The film’s most pointed flaw is it’s failure to fully develop the character of Lazarus. As a consequence, Lazarus is swept into a supporting role toward the end. Lazarus’s return to his musical roots redeems his character, but this card is underplayed.

Graphic sexual content and violence are immediate roadblocks for some moviegoers, and this film has its share of both. But the truly disturbing quality of the film is the frankness with which the story is presented. It depicts the contrasting racial attitudes of a specific region and directs attention to social truths that are present not only in the South, but throughout America. This film addresses the presence of these social truths without attempting to hide or censor their ugliness.

Not all audiences will warm to Black Snake Moan’s gritty depictions of moral ambiguity and racial distinctions. But audiences should at least applaud the film for accurately identifying society’s ugly features and not being afraid to show them to the world. Audiences should also appreciate the film’s theme of redemption. Two people who can find love in their life and a reason to respect themselves despite all of their flaws will outshine all of the ugliness around them.