In the rural South, a conflicted black man chains a white teenaged girl to his radiator, and he refuses to let her go.
On the surface, nothing good can come of this scenario.
However, in Craig Brewer’s 2006 film, “Black Snake Moan,” these seemingly volatile elements mix nicely, leading to redemption for both.
Rae (Christina Ricci) is known as the young town slut, a total mess of a girl with no future. She lives with her boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), a young man headed off to join the Army, and so stressed about it that he has panic attacks. Rae hates the thought of Ronnie leaving her. For what it’s worth–and it’s not much–he’s her anchor in life. As soon as he’s gone, she has sex with various boys around town. One of the encounters goes bad, and she’s badly beaten and dumped along a country road.
Fortuitously, she lands in the driveway of farmer and retired bluesman, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). He takes her in and cares for her wounds–she’s unconscious for a couple days. When she wakes up, she has little PTSD episodes where she ends up running outside, screaming in the tomato patch. And so, for her own safety, Lazarus chains her to the radiator.
Lazarus’s wife has just run off on him, so he’s a wreck. He’s a man of faith, but he’s filled with doubt when he’s left alone. Once he has Rae in his life–chained up or not–he finds some of the peace his life has been lacking.
The key to “Black Snake Moan” is the interplay between Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci. They are superb together. In one scene, Lazarus is playing his guitar for Rae while a nasty thunderstorm pounds away outside. As the thunder booms, she has another PTSD moment, and runs over to Lazarus, grabbing his leg, and imploring him not to stop playing. She looked like a scared child, clinging to a parent (except the parent was an older black guy playing a Gibson ES-335).
That’s the dynamic that works so well with Jackson and Ricci. He becomes the parent she never had, and she becomes the child his wife denied him. A lot of this is that Christina Ricci is excellent at playing a child in a woman’s body, and few actors today can convey motherf***ing authority like Samuel L. Jackson. Another helpful tool: Jackson is 6’2; Ricci is just over 5′. There’s one scene where she’s scared and he hugs her, and his hand covers nearly half of her back. They’re often filmed that way, emphasizing their size difference.
The two help each other heal, and they manage to do this without any sex, making out, or anything similar. When she first wakes up, she pretty much tells Lazarus she’d do anything he wants. He remains steadfast.
In time, the chain represents security to Rae. You can see this in the final scenes.
“Black Snake Moan” is an excellent movie. I’ve always meant to watch it, but never had. Netflix added it, so I watched it. I’m glad I did. Craig Brewer does a nice job capturing a small, Tennessee country town atmosphere. It’s not all like a Country Time Lemonade commercial, nor is it a constant race riot. People coexist.
Again, the most important element in “Black Snake Moan” is how Jackson and Ricci play off of each other so beautifully. They’re both talented actors, and they nail their parts. Their chemistry had to be perfect, or the film wouldn’t work. They are amazingly natural together; in fact, they have become close friends in real life.
I always liked the chemistry Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson had in “Giant,” and they became lifelong friends. Maybe that’s a litmus test.
“Black Snake Moan” is not always easy to watch. There are scenes of violence and rape, and a lot of quick, unpleasant flashback montages when Rae has one of her attacks. All in all, it’s incredibly well-done.
(Rated R: for damned near everything you rate a movie “R” for: drugs, sex, nudity, violence, and Christina Ricci spending 65% of the movie in panties and a tiny cut-off t-shirt)