If I'm ever invited to stand up in a room and discuss what makes me tick as a human being, here's two things I can now say about myself: Watching Christina Ricci strut down the road in teeny weeny cut offs, cowboy boots and a navel bearing confederate flag tee-shirt while flipping off a tractor is a vision that gives me all kinds of goosebumps. Watching a dirty blonde, white panty wearing nympho-maniacal Christina Ricci chained to the bible quoting, black Southern bluesman Samuel L. Jackson's radiator unleashes, from my fingers to my toes, an inner and more complicated howl of--Hot Damn!
And we should all have that more complicated inner howl--but not merely through the obvious and innate sexuality of the scenario, but through a feeling we have as Americans. Yes, as Americans. Now that may read as an especially strong statement but everyone, (and I'm also talking every single writer who's been against this movie) has to understand the mythic power that is Black Snake Moan. There's just certain archetypes in life that we want to see and experience on a deeper level. Director Craig Brewer gets it, unearthing that depth with a beautiful blending of exploitation and genuine love. He cares about his characters, he cares about their situation, he cares about the South and he cares about the blues. The whole thing, right down to an open and close with legendary bluesman Son House telling us what's what is, by picture end, strangely inspirational.
But back to that radiator. Ricci plays Rae, a hothouse town slut straight from the Baby Doll, Erskine Caldwell, Ellie Mae Lester mold of a gal. She's got the fever, so bad that when she scratches that itch, like most nymphos she cannot be altogether satisfied. Which means this cat's not only alive (as Hot Tin Roof Maggie would declare) but on the prowl. Ever since boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has gone away to boot camp, her sickness has intensified and she's quickly screwing about every male in sight including, we presume, an entire football team. And before Rae's behavior can get any more self destructive she gets in the wrong car with the wrong guy and ends up dumped in the road.
Enter Lazarus (Jackson) an ex blues musician and farmer who comes across the semi-conscious, semi clothed little girl while taking out his garbage one morning. A regular person would probably call the police or emergency but we're not dealing with regular people (thank goodness) and so Lazarus takes Rae into his shabby little house, remedies her cough but discovers an illness that requires more special attention. Aiming to cure her of her "wickedness," Lazarus makes sure he can keep an eye on Rae by (you heard it again) chaining the young woman to his radiator and demanding she best listen to him. Angry and horrified Rae, clad in panties and the afore-mentioned skimpy tee, attempts an escape only to result smack down in the dirt. She has no choice but to listen.
But here's the movie's daring twist--she eventually wants to listen. But not because Lazarus is a strict prude, preaching the lord and imposing scripture, he's fractured himself, a depressed musician, still stung by his young wife who just left him for his younger brother, he understands Rae's problems. He's also wise to the wanton, something he can truly express through his music, especially when Rae is nearby. While he encourages her to go straight, she inspires him to let loose, culminating in a gloriously sweaty juke joint jaunt. Singing a wonderfully profane "Stagger Lee"/"Stacker Lee"/" (to a gorgeously gyrating Rae) Lazarus shows that sin, goodness and redemption aren't so (and this is perfectly suitable here) black and white.
And neither is exploitation and drama. Unafraid, Brewer, Ricci and Jackson tear into the heart and soul of this work, dirty fingernails and all. Brewer never flinches from showing what a tramp does while out (tramping) but even more interesting, he gives that woman a voice beyond the requisite heart of gold. And when do we ever get to see an old black man allow the young white woman to see the light without making him a neutered saint? There's chemistry between these two--it's platonic but it's there. And Jackson is superb and a lot more subtle than you would expect given the subject matter. Jackson makes Lazarus a real live person, a troubled but ultimately nice person, whom we come to truly care about. And Ricci, all raw and damaged goods and saucer-eyed sadness, gives her greatest performance to date, imbuing Rae with not only pulpy, slutty sex appeal but a good deal of warmth. It's an absolutely iconic performance.
It's also an iconic movie. Tuned to the thick hard sounds of, among others in a perfect soundtrack (Brewer has impeccable, right on taste), Son House, The Black Keys and R.L. Burnside (whom Brewer dedicates the picture to) the movie provokes us and makes us think while also working that part of the body that makes us move. Some critics may call this stereotypical Southern melodrama but they need to understand/feel just how powerfully mythical it all is. Not just the (as Baby Doll would say) "fuzzy and buzzy" story and the racial relations but the film's very presentation as well. It expresses pulp with care and humor but amazingly, without any self conscious wink wink, nudge nudges. This is straight from the groin, imagination and heart and it's quite simply, exquisitely made. Black Snake Moan may be right at home at the grindhouse but it could be shelved next to Faulkner easily. It's a stunning achievement that'll be misunderstood by many, but much like Rae and Lazarus that's exactly how it should be.
Note: When done watching this movie, come home, put on some T-Model Ford, play it loud and think about god, the devil and just what the "turkey and the rabbit" mean.