Comfortable and Furious

Black Snake Moan

It would appear to be a foregone conclusion that Black Snake Moan will be the only movie I see all year to open with a Justin Timberlake sex scene and end with a wedding, but after this bizarre, nearly unclassifiable mood piece, I’m not willing to lay down any substantial bets. While nowhere near the laugh riot I had expected, nor the full-throttle guilty pleasure I had hoped for, there is something comforting — reassuring, even — about being able to spend a Sunday afternoon in the presence of a motion picture where a half-naked Christina Ricci is chained to a radiator by a fanatical sharecropper and bluesman played by Samuel L. Jackson.

And in what other country, and at what other time, could we ever hope to witness — in a single movie, mind you — topless babes playing football, interracial sex, savage beatings, chicks dumped on dirt roads, Daisy Duke shorts, ice-cold baths, and profanity-laden tunes in a seedy juke joint? But as crude, vulgar, exploitive, and nasty as it is, it isn’t quite enough to warrant entry into the pantheon of camp classics. Yes, I appreciate the tits, the blood, the loaded guns, and the dirt and heat of Southern trash literally burning before my eyes, but too often, it simply hangs back, and by the end, slams down a redemptive ending so outrageous that it may in fact receive endorsement from the Christian Coalition.

Is this possible? A movie that demeans women, revives (and endorses) the long-held myth that white broads quite literally come down with a fever for black cock, and reduces everything below the Mason-Dixon line to a crude stereotype, is secretly — proudly — an old-fashioned push for saving grace? For while Rae (Ricci) is a slut, a whore, a tramp, and a skank — the sort of woman who is being ass-pounded by a sweaty buck inside of an hour after her soldier boyfriend has been deployed — she seeks love after all, and changes her ways with a white wedding straight from scripture. It’s what she’s needed all along, apparently, in order to cure her of a near-fanatical lust for black men (according to legend, there isn’t a single man in town she hasn’t spread her legs for), and she must therefore meet up with a Bible-toting Lazarus (Jackson), whose very name speaks of the need to be born again.

For it is Lazarus, after all, who feels called by God to save this little vixen after he finds her sprawled out in the road, just having been punched in the face and pushed from a truck. But he is in just the right mood to save, as he has been dumped by his wife, who happened to find comfort in the arms — and bed — of his brother. Worst of all, his wife once aborted his child, and it is this “unnatural” act that sent poor Lazarus spinning toward destruction.

The opening moments of Black Snake Moan hold a great deal of promise (especially a tension-packed scene between Lazarus and his wife that is full of colorful dialogue), but the film isn’t willing to stay immersed in the mud, and would rather take its poor souls to the promised land. Instead of a wedding, for example, and a tender exchange between newlyweds, we should be watching an exploding vehicle careening off the road, where a bloody and broken couple emerge shaken, only to be slammed into the mist by a charging semi. It’s all they really deserve, after all, since Rae possess not the wit or intelligence to snake toilets at the greasy spoon, and Ronnie (Timberlake) is forced to join the military in order to fulfill his dreams, which, in this Tennessee town, involve little more than moving to Knoxville.

They drink, carouse, scratch their empty skulls, and will one day bring forth a baker’s dozen of chromosome-deficient monsters into their sad world, and to hint at an alternative is to propagate the big lie in spades. And while we loathe such foolish beasts, they would be acceptable on their own terms, knowing their place. Scumbags aren’t nearly so intolerable as when they wake up, stretch a bit, and cast bloodshot eyes to greener pastures. Of course, the movie in no way makes us believe that the wedding car is headed to the university, where greasy t-shirts and soiled undergarments will be exchanged for suits and diplomas, but they just might be happy after all. For what we’ve seen over the course of two hours, that is entirely unacceptable.

Think of another key scene that should have gone one way, but went another, largely out the desire to push a religious agenda. Ronnie has just returned from service (he is tossed out after a week for reasons never explained), and soon discovers that his lover is earning her bread as the region’s fuck toy. Furious, he grabs a firearm and arrives at Lazarus’ spread. While Rae is singing a religious staple as Lazarus plays guitar, Ronnie creeps up from behind, knocks Lazarus to the ground, and cocks the gun. Ronnie is eventually talked out of cold-blooded murder, but instead of Lazarus taking revenge for the beating he has received (and shouting Jackson-isms at the top of his unmistakable voice), he calls the preacher, and by the next cut, each of the scamps is listening intently.

They want to move on from the pain: Ronnie from his anxiety, and Rae from a past that, needless to say, includes rape and a cold, prickly mother (whom Rae eventually attacks in the grocery store for the usual reasons, like turning a blind eye to sexual abuse), but it’s not a turn that makes any sense, given the material. It’s a welcome sight for Lazarus to pick up his guitar once again, but if he’s going to chase away the demons, he must embrace eye-rolling, tongue-waggling insanity, not a few mild lectures and a trip to the saloon. We don’t ever feel that Rae is being ministered to, at any rate, which means that her “switch” is awkward and unbelievable. She must go through the gauntlet in order to emerge whole.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect exploitation always end in gunfire, but surely someone must die in the course of the story in order to justify the expense. As predictable as it sounds, I still would have applauded Lazarus’ self-inflicted death, for what better inspiration for Rae and her new husband? Dying so that others might live is unbearably Christian, but no other send-off makes sense. Instead, Lazarus ends his story by holding hands with a pleasant, decent woman from town (she works in the pharmacy and always flirts with Lazarus whenever he comes around), which is a love he has not yet earned. Has the rage been erased?

Will love and the power of Jesus quiet the moan that always seems to lurk in the shadows? It seems unlikely, because we sense that the murder of his unborn child (his terms, not mine) will continue to haunt his days and nights. I’d like to think that the spirit of the blues — which Lazarus sings with authority at one point, with wonderfully sadistic lyrics to match — would win the day, and love, freedom, and redemption would remain as elusive as an education in the Great Smoky Mountains. Women will steal your soul, brother, and salvation will never be possible so long as they have hips to shake, and lips to pucker.

But why would Lazarus seek but one love in this overheated town? It’s practically a standing joke that everyone he encounters wants to strip him bare and ride him like an old mule, including young Rae, though she appears to be motivated more by a desire to escape. She does find a stand-in for him, however, as when a young boy from the area stops by and is attacked as if he alone holds the key to her survival. It’s a great scene, after all: Rae goes through her little dance, signaling that the fire for dark meat is coursing through her veins, and in one fluid motion, she whips off her shirt (one picturing both the Confederate and U.S. flags) and pulls him close for a rapid exchange of fluids.

Needless to say, Lazarus arrives just moments after the front door slams shut, and before we know it, Lazarus is screaming, and the boy is running through the field with his pants around his ankles. Later, when the boy returns, tail between his legs, his aw-shucks expression leads to an exchange where Lazarus reveals how he lost his virginity so many years ago, to a woman who was his second cousin and weighed in around two tons, give or take a few pounds. It’s a moment that exists apart from the story, and bobs and weaves with subtle gestures and knowing dialogue. And yes, there are many such scenes peppered throughout the screenplay, but their spirit — and the charge they provide to the surroundings – doesn’t carry the day.

Maybe it’s an unwillingness to grant that a film of this sort can have it both ways, and that to truly live up to its billing, it must be all or nothing, preferably so far down the pike that it disappears into sensationalism altogether. The small moments previously mentioned hint at an exploration of character, of course, but I would have happily accepted their omission for the surrender to orgiastic excess. Rarely do I argue for a retreat from depth, but at every moment of relative calm, I looked to the screenplay gods to provide a broken bottle to the skull, or a crazed drunk driving his pickup through a shop window.

I wanted animalistic romps scored to the twang and pluck of the region’s rhythms to be followed by even more intense seduction, if not brutal assaults in the public square. This needed to be a town swallowed whole by sin and debauchery, with no one left unscathed; where the fever afflicted not merely a lonely girl, but everyone in possession of a pulse. And maybe this town, existing almost apart from a civilization that has passed it by, comes to reject compliance and servitude, believing that the rules that guide the rest of us have proven futile and in themselves, obscene. Fair enough, it makes little sense to criticize a movie for what it isn’t, but when the framework is so tempting, the atmosphere so alive with possibility, the inner workings had better be up for the challenge.