We gave it a B
Black Snake Moan could have been called Craig Brewer’s Grindhouse: The writer-director of Hustle & Flow (2005) followed up his acclaimed music-trumps-pimpin’ saga with this would-be modern-day exploitation film. It comes tricked out with biblical morality in its script, ’60s-drive-in-movie flavor in the DVD cover art, Sam Jackson in salt-and-pepper whiskers, and Christina Ricci in hardly anything at all.
Your first hurdle: You gotta believe that Ricci’s Southern po’gal Rae is so emotionally discombobulated when her man, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), ships out to war that she goes lust-crazy, jumping the bones of nearly every guy she sees. Wasted and abused, she ends up on a gravel road that leads to the house of Lazarus (Jackson). According to Brewer’s rather dated-seeming gospel, the last thing a middle-aged black man in the South wants to find is a white girl dumped in his vicinity, because that spells more trouble than the Confederate flag on Rae’s tattered T-shirt.
Your second hurdle is Lazarus’ solution to his dilemma: He wraps a big old length of chain around Rae’s waist and forces her to emotionally detox while secured to his radiator. This ludicrous gimmick was the selling point for the movie in its theatrical release — it gave off multiple old-movie-geek vibes (chained women! lusty race-mixing!) — but it didn’t translate into a big hit.
That’s because ticket buyers may have felt deceived. Instead of conventional exploitation fare, Moan is essentially a sweet love story — Lazarus forms a kindly, protective relationship with Rae, and Rae is really in love with Ronnie (Timberlake has too small a role for the magnetism he brings).
Drama of a different sort prevails in Brewer’s commentary, which is both Moviemaking 101-informative and frequently Too Much Information. Beginning with winning self-deprecation — he refers to Moan as ”this crazy picture” — Brewer takes an alarming turn when, over scenes of Rae and Ronnie making love, he talks about ”getting it on with my wife.” He lets that matter drop, thank goodness, going on to explain why there are so many handsome wide shots of Jackson and Ricci against the lush Tennessee surroundings: ”Close-ups, they’re like special effects, you know — you’ve gotta hold off on ’em.” He also displays a thorough knowledge of the genre, citing 1956’s Elia Kazan-Tennessee Williams Southern gothic film Baby Doll as an inspiration. The DVD’s making-of isn’t nearly as interesting as Brewer’s comments. By the time he gets around to saying, ”I’ve met a lot of women who’ve seen this and said…a little bondage never hurt anybody,” you’re either on the movie’s wavelength, or you’ve run from the room with your fingers in your ears.