As with so much Southern-themed moviemaking, Tennessee Williams is a touchstone here, but it's the odd, nervy comedic eroticism of Elia Kazan's least seen Williams adaptation Baby Doll (1956) and not the bathos of Streetcar Brewer is channeling. Like Williams, Brewer depicts Southern femininity as a kind of nymphomaniac pathology. After finding Rae beaten and left for dead on a country road, Lazarus revives her, only to watch in horrified wonderment as her “sickness” activates, and she begins to writhe and beg and scream for any kind of sex she can get. Lazarus goes for his Bible, and who can blame him? Ricci's Rae is Maggie the Cat possessed by demons, and her need is so raging and bestial it wouldn't be a surprise if her head started to revolve.
What isn't concerned with the cinematic deflowering of Southern womanhood takes its themes and structures from the archetypes of classic blues tunes (the soundtrack is a superb blending of old recordings and contemporary recreations that might do for the blues what O Brother Where Art Thou did for Appalachian throat yodeling). Lazarus' wife runs off with his brother. Ricci's discharged soldier boyfriend (Justin Timberlake, taking another baby step toward acting cred) goes hunting for the platonically loving Lazarus and Rae with a gun. Preachers and churchy sopranos hover around the margins of the action like the angels of redemption a real bluesman is supposed to always see just out of reach. It's meant to be a blues song come to life, though the at-times wearing soap-opera machinery required to keep these relationships in motion is the furthest thing from the stark narrative economy of a good blues.
There are other non-fatal flaws as well. A studio pseudo-indie financed by Paramount, Black Snake Moan is occasionally overwhelmed by the production resources put at its disposal. When Timberlake has a claustrophobic anxiety attack while surrounded by trucks on a freeway, the engine noise and widescreen photography are so ominous and enveloping you'd swear he and Ricci were about to be run off the road by mobsters. When Jackson performs in a club for the first time in decades, the screen overflows with phony shots of shimmying audience members overreacting with picturesque carnality to musicianship and vocals that are, shall we say, slightly better than might be expected from the star of Snakes on a Plane.
In what will surely be the most talked about aspect of the picture, Lazarus attempts to “cure” Rae of her nymphomania the way a drug addict is cured in a B-movie — by chaining her to a radiator like an unruly pet. The sight of Ricci in her scanties writhing in 10 yards of chain link is fetish territory, moving Black Snake Moan down the kink scale, away from Tennessee Williams and toward Jean Genet. The same yahoo bluenoses who picketed Hounddog at Sundance without having seen it will no doubt go into moral-outrage mode, because it takes a sense of humor to be in on a joke, even when it's a willfully perverse one. Brewer seems to have anticipated this reaction. With its suggestion of offbeat sexual fantasy, chaining Ricci to a radiator is Brewer's modern equivalent for Kazan's then-scandalous Baby Doll image of buxom Caroll Baker, sucking her thumb in an oversized crib.
Intentional or not, there's a serious joke embedded in all the Bizarre Magazine and
kink. What better comedic reversal of the often tragic history of American race relationships than a black person chaining up a white one as an act of kindness, rather than a black being chained by whites out of hate?
Black Snake Moan
isn't unflawed, but it marks Brewer as a much more interesting filmmaker than his over-regarded debut film
Hustle & Flow
did. Here's hoping sensationalism and Brewer's giddy willingness to muck around in areas a more tasteful filmmaker would run from screaming draw enough of an audience that we get to see what he has in mind for major-studio-release number 3.
Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci
Director/Screenwriter: Craig Brewer
Producers: John Singleton and Stephanie Allain
Genre: Drama comedy
Rating: R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: March 2, 2007