Some people might say, just because Christina Ricci spends a good third of BLACK SNAKE MOAN wearing only panties and a half shirt, chained up like a dog to control her bestial urge to fuck anything with a dick, that it’s degrading to women. Well, okay, if I put it that way. But as cool as Samuel L. Jackson’s backsliding bluesman Lazarus is, it’s Ricci’s coughing town slut Rae that you sympathize with most. The weird thing is this ends up being a sweet movie, a cute movie. Like a really subdued KILL BILL, BLACK SNAKE takes ridiculous notions that don’t have to make sense in an exploitation* picture (a man chaining up a young girl to cure her nymphomania, her forgiving him for it) but then treats the characters’ emotions so seriously that I actually start to care about them.
I’m not gonna complain about seeing Ricci half naked or the lurid pulpy advertising campaign revolving around Lazarus having her on a chain like a pet, or something worse. But honestly, swear to God, cross my eye with a needle, etc., I was excited for this movie because it’s from the writer-director of HUSTLE & FLOW. If you have to compare the two I’d say this one isn’t quite as compelling, although some would disagree due to the panties and boobs.
It starts out with a fair share of titillation and it invites The Male Gaze. At first Rae’s nympho-attacks invite giggles with the pounding soundtrack that seems to, uh, let’s say emanate from her loins. But before long it’s more tragic than funny. You feel sorry for this gal. Just like any real life “town slut,” she’s gotten this way by being sexually abused, and in one of the more satisfying (and sad) scenes she confronts her mother about it. See, the chain is empowering.
Lazarus is a good character too. His wife just ran off with his younger brother, leaving him all alone in the house to come up with ideas like this chaining thing. The new lifestyle also gives him a chance to get out his old guitar again and sing some blues. Jackson sings the songs himself and does a real good job of it. Whoever does the guitar playing is great too, and either Jackson has some fucked up fingers, or a good makeup job, or a good finger double. Those are workin man’s fingers. He says it’s from pickin peas though, not from pluckin a guitar.
The blues are not as central to the plot as the hip hop in HUSTLE & FLOW, but once again the songs are highlights. To me the best scene in the movie is probaly when Lazarus combs his hair and goes to the bar to put on a show. The audience knows that Rae’s soldier boyfriend (Just Timberlake) is back in town looking for her and is gonna be angry to find her with Lazarus. Then you kind of forget about it as they’re preparing to go out. But Rae has this watch that is set to beep at the same time her boyfriend’s beeps, so they can always think of each other even if he’s in Iraq or somewhere. And in the parking lot her watch beeps, reminding the audience that he’s out there. That little storytelling trick causes dread to hang over the whole scene, through a medley of songs and a montage of feverish, slow motion dancing, all the way until the end of the scene when the camera pans over to show the boyfriend watching ominously through the window.
Now, I gotta be honest, I think this might work a little better if it wasn’t Justin Timberlake. He does fine, it’s not embarrassing at all like that horrible EDISON FORCE movie. But his character is supposed to be dangerous, and this is not a guy we think of as dangerous. This is some white kid from a children’s lip synching group who’s grown up to be semi-respected in pop culture because he’s kind of funny when he hosts Saturday Night Live. So it’s dick in a box guy versus Shaft 2000, or Jules Winfield. How scared are we gonna get? And how touched are we gonna be if he turns out to be a softy? I think both angles would work better with a genuine tough guy.
As long as we’re pointing out flaws, I gotta say that there’s a few too many white man’s blues songs on the soundtrack too. Craig Brewer is white, so maybe he’s just trying to be honest. But if you’re gonna have a blues movie like this it should be 100% pure authentic blues. Oh well, most of it’s good. (By the way, Steven Seagal, you should try to hook up with Craig Brewer.)
Like HUSTLE & FLOW, this ends up being a story about people who aren’t related coming together and forming a family unit. You feel like they’re a family and you could almost be a member of the family. There’s a weird little detail where, to calm Timberlake down in a particularly tense moment, Rae pulls up her shirt and pushes her boobs against his back. It’s just this weird thing they have, she knows she can comfort him that way. And that’s pretty much what I like about the movie right there. The boobs are good but it’s the sweetness that wins you over.
*Please accept my apologies for using this word. It’s a rare case where nothing else fits. I love Tarantino but ever since KILL BILL I’m so sick and god damned tired of him and other people talking about “exploitation movies.” Give it a rest, fellas. At least I didn’t use the word “grindhouse,” though.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.