Like a steady 12-bar blues progression, Black Snake Moan
(the title of a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune) lays down a groove and works its chords over and over 'til their energy is spent. Following up on his arresting debut film, Hustle & Flow
, Brewer here sticks with the theme of the power of music to redeem lost souls. Brewer again sets his film firmly in the soil of the South, a place where things are just, well, steamier. The heat is also well-suited to the exploitation-film model the writer/director employs, borrowing not only from the most salacious elements of the grindhouse formula but also bits from films such as … And God Created Woman
and Baby Doll
. In her cutoff short-shorts and midriff-baring Confederate T-shirt, Rae (Ricci) is the embodiment of all those nympho predecessors – a woman with an itch down below that can’t be relieved no matter how often it’s scratched, which is frequently. It’s a sickness, a curse, and now that her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) has shipped out to boot camp before heading to Iraq, her disease has gotten worse. The film opens with Rae and Ronnie hot in the throes of vigorous goodbye sex and then watches as she gets continuously drunker while screwing everything that isn’t already nailed down. Rae’s path of self-destruction leads her to a dirt road where she’s found lying in a semiunconscious state in nothing but her underpants and above-mentioned T. And who’s there to raise her from the dead but the farmer Lazarus (Jackson), who discovers her while taking out his own trash. A former blues musician, Lazarus is in the dumps because his wife just left him for his brother – a classic blues riff in itself. So he takes her in and does his best to heal her but finds her cough much easier to relieve than her itch. When Bible-reading doesn’t quell the inflammation, Lazarus chains Rae to the radiator, which gives rise to the film’s iconic image – chained heat, indeed. Yes, it’s all outrageous and patently stereotypical, but Brewer and the actors invest these representations with everything they have. It’s great to see Jackson working hard here to create a character instead of simply Superflying a bunch of %!#@ snakes on a plane. Ricci is better than ever, and Timberlake, on the heels of Alpha Dog
is turning into a decent actor.) Yet to dismiss this film as an over-the-top throwback is to shut out the melody. Black Snake Moan
is to the blues what Pulp Fiction
is to the dime-store novel, a fleshed-out personification of the genre’s tropes. Well, Rae and Lazarus are kindred spirits because they both have a case of the blue devils; both are drowning in their personal woes because love, as the legendary bluesman Son House states in the film’s preamble, makes you do things you don’t want to do. The story is as humorous and raunchy as a good blues refrain, and the way Lazarus and Rae react to each other almost resembles the classic call-and-response structure of the blues. Perhaps Brewer might have ultimately devised ways to lift his story from the sociological constraints of the Southern blues imagery, but there’s no denying his perfection of the onscreen blues riff.