Last night twitter was stormed with 10-year-anniversary appreciations of David Fincher’s self-evident paranoid investigative masterpiece ‘Zodiac’, which is exactly the kind of high-profile work that sticks in peoples’ memory fervently a decade later. And yeah, I of course gave Fincher’s 21st century hallmark another watch, pulling back sensations I recall and disturbing details I didn’t uncover until now. But looking back 10 years, I noticed another distinctly memorable piece of genre pulp was celebrating its decennial.
I was 14 when Hustle and Flow and Footloose (2011) director Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan initially came out, and the recurring image of the film sold a clear piece of sexploitation. A grizzled southern Samuel L. Jackson in a wife-beater, chaining up a skimpy, sexy Christina Ricci in her underwear and a civil war crop-top. That image told its own story that I was too young to question: a crusty old black guy chaining up a defenseless little white gal. Obviously I couldn’t get the DVD past my mom without her questioning the content. Somehow Saw IV was fine, though.
And so when it crossed my eye again last night, I looked at it again with the curiosity I had as a 14-year-old kid. Not all my friends had heard of Fincher’s Zodiac, but when I mentioned it was Black Snake Moan‘s anniversary, they too recalled that memorable image, the story it told and whether the film actually reflected it. Once Zodiac was winding down and the hurdy gurdy man was singing songs of love, I could either go out and sing karaoke with friends – probably a wiser choice – or stay home and fill in this odd, inscrutable blind spot in my 2007 viewing.
From the first moment I felt the seeds of the film I was expecting settling into place – Christina Ricci’s Rae and Justin Timberlake’s Ronnie mackin’ out hard as he leaves to serve the army in the middle east. Chasing after him, she collapses to the ground, a feverish burning overtaking her. It’s her vagina, relentlessly hungry and with insatiable need for satisfaction. Sexuality and promiscuity are a demonic presence overtaking her, turning her from a good, pure girl into a sex-crazed hussy. At the same time, Jackson’s Lazarus is finalizing a nasty divorce with his wife, whom he curses with religious condemnation and hellfire. Again, we’re sent the image we’re sold, of a man whose union drains and ages women yearning for life and expression.
From there on the idea I had of what this film was started to erode, and what it turned out to be kept me attentive and lightly entranced. For the first half hour, Brewer stresses the stereotypical aspects of these characters that we come in expecting. Is Rae a demonic nymphomaniac, or simply a woman confident in her sexual ability and needs? We’d prefer the latter, but it’s probably the former. Is Lazarus a crazed, volatile swamp rat shut-in, or a soulful, weary crooner? Genre expectations promise the former, but it’s refreshingly the latter, particularly in one scene where a battered Lazarus sings to blues as Rae falls into a blue-tinged drug-trip delirium.
So much of Brewer’s film is hinged on a kind of hard-luck romantic southern blues, to the point where it’s practically a full-blown musical, be it one where Samuel L. Jackson chains Christina Ricci to his radiator and refuses to let her leave. The circumstances behind her “imprisonment”, though, are hardly exploitative. An overzealous Christian, Lazarus is dead-set on curing Rae of her endemic sexual wickedness, keeping her away from all kinds of sexual persuasions. It doesn’t go on nearly as long as you’d expect, and once it’s discovered, it’s not nearly as chaotic and catastrophic as you’d expect. Through this odd, inevitably sketchy and questionable pairing, both Rae and Lazarus find more than just spiritual redemption, but someone to genuinely confide in, not sliding them into the genre boxes most people enter into Black Snake Moan expecting.
While it’s clearly not your typical slice of pulp, Black Snake Moan is elevated even further by the startling, empathetic performances of its leads. Christina Ricci manages a nice middle ground bombshell sexiness and psychic distress, vibrantly conveying her internal battle with her sexual vices – it’s delicious to see them indulged, but more fixating to see her resist them, particularly in a late-film southern rave sequence where she’s grinding indiscriminately, but playfully, with men and women alike. It’s Samuel L. Jackson, though, who turns an extraordinary, unexpected career-best performance as Lazarus, rich in his usual gusto charm, but with a push-pull of volatility and sensitivity that feels exciting and new for the icon.
Even a sweetly reserved Justin Timberlake factors into Brewer’s sweaty, hot and bothered vision of contemporary Americana implosion, as an aspiring military kid with too much anxiety for combat. Regardless of Ronnie’s military prowess, Rae’s sexual confidence or Lazarus’ belief in moral redemption, none of them are quite able to rein in their darker impulses, at least not alone. Restraint is not just an internal crisis, but an external one, relying on others to keep yourself grounded. Brewers’ ways of conveying these ideas are muddy and questionable, particularly in absolving and validating Lazarus of his ideology fueled psuedo-abduction crimes – “it’s okay to chain someone up if they’re totally out of control” feels like it could be used to validate any number of conversion therapy arguments – but his vision is so surprisingly endearing and gratifying to hold off over-scrutinizing those lapses in judgment.