Black Snake Moan

  • Black Snake Moan (2006). Dir. Craig Brewer, with Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson.
  • This movie is for: people interested in a vibrantly colored, delightfully weird take on the Southern Gothic.
  • This movie is not for: anybody, and I mean anybody, that is uncomfortable with sleaze. Or is uncomfortable with a plot that centers around the reformation of a disease-ridden nymphomaniac. Or anybody that doesn’t like movies that sensationalize domestic violence, racism, and child abuse for entertainment.

Quick plot summary: Samuel L. Jackson is an old blues man who hasn’t played in public for many years. His wife is in the process of separating from him, and things are kind of at a low point. Christina Ricci is a nymphomaniac that’s fucked just about everybody in the shitty small town where she lives. Justin Timberlake is a soldier that’s been in love with Ricci forever, but has anxiety issues. Ricci turns down Timberlake’s best friend, who’s a big douche, and he beats the shit out of her and dumps her on the road near Jackson’s house. Jackson nurses her to health, and chains her to the radiator while he tries to get her “demon” out. Then some Hollywood bullshit about them healing each other happens.
There are many reasons not to like this movie. Even now, I’m conflicted by how good it is and how bad it is at the same time. It’s a movie that exists in its own universe, and behaves by its own laws. You have to look at it like a Tarantino movie: you have to accept that it’s valid to think that a movie is good, while rejecting the juvenile mindset of its director and some of its sequences. Tarantino movies are so interesting, even threatening, because they’re good. If they were shitty, we’d either watch them because they’re so-bad-it’s-good, or we’d dismiss them entirely. Instead, we’re forced to be a little more nuanced.
Because it’s more fun, let’s start with the bad. First off, almost all of the elements are presented in a sleazy, exploitative manner. Revelations about child sexual abuse are tossed around as plot elements, the version of the South presented is a grab-bag of backward Southerner cliches, the director/production designer revels in presenting an unvarnished and grotesque look for their characters. Christina Ricci’s character is pushed around by everyone: her “solution” to her nymphomania is a symbolic gold chain that she uses to restrain herself and remind her of the time spent chained to Sam Jackson’s radiator. Enlightened sexual politics, it ain’t. It’s a movie that takes an unashamedly backwards look at some of the things (race, gender, disability) that we’ve tried to become more enlightened about–a movie that tries to push political-correctness buttons. Depending on how much of a stake you have in those issues, this movie goes from great fun to unbearable.
There’s an equal amount of good. These days, Samuel L. Jackson specializes in performances that range from known quantity to self-parody, and yet he’s really good in this movie–self-referential “motherfuckers” notwithstanding. As regressive as Christina Ricci’s character is, she puts everything in the role, and manages to put a little class into a decidedly un-classy role and movie. The soundtrack, and the way that the music is incorporated into the music, is first-rate, using blues music as old-time music was in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The movie is slick and stylish in all the right ways. Jackson’s and Ricci’s relationship is beyond fucked up, but their dynamic at the end of the movie is touching, and weirdly sincere. The whole thing kind of works.
I was talking about the movie to one of my oldest movie watching partners, and he said that he’s always been curious about the movie, but has always felt too embarrassed to check it out from a video store or Redbox. That’s kind of the space that the movie operates in. There  are some people that are never going to enjoy this movie, but if you give it a shot, it just might surprise you.

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