Blues music is pretty much all about the sex. Nasty, sweaty, all-consuming sex. At least that's how legendary bluesman Son House explains it in the archival footage opening Black Snake Moan. The blues is sex, says Son, and the blues is the bad stuff that comes after — a point illustrated with stunning literalness by Black Snake Moan's quick cut to a couple furiously rubbing body parts together, immediately followed by one of the bodies disengaging in order to go puke in the toilet.
The other sweaty body, the one not in the throes of violent regurgitation, is named Rae (Christina Ricci), and she's the resident tramp of the heat-dazed Southern town where Black Snake Moan takes place. Starved down to what looks like about 85 pounds (more than a few of which are accounted for by breasts) and sporting a seriously skanky blonde shag, Ricci plays Rae like a big-eyed cross between an anime sexpot and the tragic figure at the center of some white-trash grand opera. And with that wicked, nagging cough, Rae really could be right out of La Boheme.
Rae's just a wisp of a thing, but she wields disproportionate power, albeit of a self-destructive sort she can't begin to control. Scant moments after her boyfriend has bolted out the door (off to fight in some W-ordained trouble spot), Rae's writhing on the ground, clutching at her cootch, eyes rolling and lips contorting in a way that smacks more of desperation than lasciviousness. Possessed by demons no less potent than the ones that had their hooks in Linda Blair, Rae's barely been on her own 10 minutes before she's phoning up the nearest slab of man-meat to come plug up the empty space inside.
Rae's a mess, no doubt about it, but everybody's got their demons in Black Snake Moan — which is probably as close as the movie comes to making some sort of "point." The other main character here is a former rough-and-tumble blues singer reborn as a tomato farmer — named, appropriately enough, Lazarus, and played by Samuel L. Jackson.
With a penchant for spouting Biblical verses with a vaguely ominous edge, Jackson could almost be playing his hit man character from Pulp Fiction here, years later and at the end of a very different road. Even more to the point, Jackson's Laz comes off as a modern equivalent to Clint Eastwood's retired gunfighter in Unforgiven, trying hard to live a peaceful, God-fearing life, but not particularly good at it.
As if you couldn't guess, these two characters — the old-school nymphomaniac and the walking dead man — wind up crossing paths. After a boozy night crooning about shooting that woman who done him wrong, Laz wakes to find Rae (a woman who's done everybody wrong, but mostly herself) unconscious and covered in blood and various other bodily fluids, lying in a heap right in front of his house. Laz does the right thing and nurses the girl back to health, of course, but then things get weird.
After saving the girl's life, Laz — who, although no angel himself, seems to be confusing Rae's sins with those of his own unfaithful wife's (or maybe he's just got a problem with all womankind) — dedicates himself to saving her soul. This translates into the movie's big hook: the spectacle of an aging African-American man binding a wanton white woman in heavy-duty chains and making her his prisoner until the devil is driven out of the flesh.
This is obviously meant to be pretty titillating stuff, although the reality of it is nowhere near as sensationalistic as you might imagine (especially if you've seen those wonderfully lurid posters that make Black Snake Moan look like the bottom half of a '70s drive-in double feature).
Nothing much comes of the potentially subversive black-white/master-slave reversals implied here, and, despite the leering, pulp-ish veneer, writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) doesn't really take the movie into the kinky areas it seems to be promising. But neither does Black Snake Moan really fit the mold of a serious and sober character study. It's a bit of both, as it turns out, but not fully either. The film seems to exist in two separate worlds simultaneously, with lurid elements often played curiously straight and serious dramatic plot points frequently given an outsized, overheated edge.
The result is fun to watch, but not completely satisfying. As far as sheer exploitation goes, the main attraction here is Ricci herself, who spends a good portion of the movie not only in chains, but three-quarters naked, adorned only in underpants and a shred of a T-shirt emblazoned with a pair of pistols criss-crossed over a Confederate flag. (Some might call this a "brave" performance, but Ricci's Rae basically strikes me as one more footnote on the resume of an actress more interesting for her career choices than for the resulting performances.)
Beyond that, the movie's just a bit too tame for its own good. For my money, it could have used more reality-bending moments like the one where Laz relates his painful backstory via a blues howled in the middle of the night, while thunder crashes outside the window as in some Bollywood musical fantasy.
Music, in fact, is everywhere in Black Snake Moan, passionate and vaguely ominous blues music, constantly percolating just under the dialogue, occasionally grabbing our attention (in songs strummed and sung by Jackson himself) and finally exploding on stage, in one of the film's best sequences, before a rowdy, sexed-up crowd. That relationship between music and sex seems to be of primary interest to Brewer — whose earlier Hustle & Flow treated both sex and music as consumer products peddled by a hero who took the form of a pimp itching to be a hip-hop star.
Brewer seems like he wants to take the equation to the next level in Black Snake Moan — making a film where some combination of sex and music dominates every aspect of the story — but his ideas aren't quite as focused this time, and the film reflects that.
The best thing about Hustle & Flow was really the steamy, Southern-fried flavor, and the same holds even truer here. Shot just outside Memphis, Tenn., Black Snake Moan displays a killer eye for detail and authentic atmosphere, getting the back-roads juke joints, the ramshackle neighborhoods, the language, textures and timbre of Southern life — black and white (though mostly black), urban and rural (though mostly rural) — just right.
Brewer is all about the feel of things, and between Hustle & Flow and his new film, he's proven himself remarkably adept at communicating the essence of an environment. If only Black Snake Moan had done something similar for its misfit characters, this could have been something really special.