The Underrated: Black Snake Moan
I find there is a frequent common thread in underrated films: terrible marketing. Some films are just either misrepresented, or someone has been extremely lazy in the marketing department, or someone has failed to understand the film. Black Snake Moan is a case in point. Seriously, look at that poster- we’ve got a semi-naked and sultry Christina Ricci chained up with a glowering and angry Samuel L. Jackson grasping the other end of her leash. It is a poster designed to hit as many taboo buttons as it can. It reeks of sex, miscegenation, inter-generational naughtiness, misogyny and whole lot of exploitative fun. It looks like it could be a poster for a Russ Meyer film.
Black Snake Moan is not exploitation.
This is a film that I believe suffers from false expectations. It’s clearly sold as a filthy borderline piece of smut with “Everything is hotter down south” as a tagline. Everything may be hotter down south, but it’s also a damned sight more depressing. Any expectations you may have going into this film are completely dashed in the first sequence- it’s a sample of what looks like genuine footage with an old blues musician. This should give a clue as to what the film is about, and it isn’t sex. There’s an awful lot of sex, but you couldn’t say it’s erotic. The sex is dirty and degrading, being as it is used as a sign of mental illness. This is not a sexy film.
So, in that case, what is Black Snake Moan about? I personally believe it is a film about redemption, cruelty, and the consequences of mental illness. The film follows Christina Ricci’s Rae as she hits rock bottom. Rae is a deeply damaged individual. She’s a nymphomaniac in the mental illness sense of the word, she’s a desperate and messed up survivor of child abuse. One night she goes partying (which involves beer, drugs and unhygienic sex with near strangers) that culminates in an attempted rape and savage beating. Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson) finds her unconscious on the side of the road. He’s got his own problems, but he takes her in, chains her to the radiator and straightens her out, before she returns as a new person to the world.
So far, so exploitative. Nevertheless, this is an actual adult film- adult in terms of that it’s a film for adults, rather than being porn. All the characters in it have their own ghosts and overwhelming problems. Lazarus is a burnt out blues guitarist with anger management issues, Rae’s husband (Justin Timberlake who manages not to suck) is crippled with panic attacks and Rae herself is a complete mess. This is a film about recovering from trauma, a film about the ramifications of psychic misery, but above all else about the chance of redemption. Lazarus does indeed heal Rae, and she in turn takes care of Ronny. These characters have nothing left to lose, and they may have fed off each other, but now they can grow and maybe move on.
Black Snake Moan sports 3 things that I think elevate it above the material. The first is that they have actors that are not only taking a massive risk with the material, but also put in powerhouse performances. Samuel L Jackson considers this to be his best performance. He’s wrong, but there can be no denying that his turn as Laz is one of his finest roles. Christina Ricci also considers this to be her best performances, and it’s very easy to see why. Rae is a fundamentally unsympathetic character, yet she embodies her with real pathos, and combines this with the frantic energy of the psychotically disturbed. For example, her scene where she confronts her mother is bitter, twisted and savage. It’s a great effort all round, but not as good as the quiet moment in the film where she’s singing along with Jackson’s guitar, sporting a look of absolute beatification.
Secondly, Black Snake Moan has superb use of sound. The crescendo of cicadas that plays behind Rae’s psychic breaks drives home the mess inside her head. It’s a terrible noise, one that reeks of confusion and compulsion. However, more importantly, Black Snake Moan has an absolutely superb blues Soundtrack. Jackson’s gravelly voice is magnificent delivering the lyrics (especially the title song itself). The soundtrack pumps along with the film, sexy and sleazy, but reeking of sadness and desperation. It’s fitting and superb.
Finally, this film is brilliantly directed. Craig Brewer followed up Hustle and Flow with this, and he was in a rare streak of form. He really seems to have a handle on the material that in lesser hands would be just plain nasty. The shot composition in particular is glorious- Ricci at the beginning flipping the bird to a combine harvester, or Jackson howling at the moon, or the low camera chasing her through the field as she’s having a nightmare being prime examples. It’s also restrained direction when it needs to be- it would have been very tempting to just have Ricci butt naked for the duration of the film, but he manages to resist this compulsion.
Black Snake Moan is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it is an excellent film that was buried through completely shit marketing. They fucked up good and proper with this one, selling a serious film as porn- to quote Ricci herself:
it’s sold in this exploitative, objectifying manner, so that I look like I’m part of some 1970s porn, when I’m making a movie about what happens to a f-ing rape victim
Nice work there, marketing types. Congratulations on burying a serious adult movie. This is why we get force fed adolescent junk, and this is why we don’t get proper adult themed films.
To conclude- if you haven’t see this, do so. It isn’t filth and it totally merits another look. If you have seen it, give it another spin- there are far worse ways to spend a few hours.
Until next time,
PS- seeing as I seem to have regressed to being a 14 year old, here’s the NSFW shot of Ricci that you’re all reading this review to hope to see.