Like a Bastard Out of Carolina for the Penthouse Forum crowd, Black Snake Moan is an exploitation redux from the fevered imagination of director Craig Brewer. The man who gave us the immortal phrase "It's hard out here for a pimp" is back.
Brewer returns to the dirty-South obsessions that filled his divisive Sundance hit Hustle & Flow: a black man expressing his pathos via music, and the white slut who feels his pain. White boy Brewer makes films that feel like hardcore rap lyrics splashed onto the screen, forsaking self-analysis for pimps and ho's, nymphos and preachers dosed with Southern gothic jimmies. His Tennessee is a place defined more by Brewer's drive-in imagination than any conceivable reality. Taking its title from bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson's song, Black Snake Moan finds its greatest inspiration in the exploitation cinema of the late 1960s/early '70s – the retro fascination shared by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in the upcoming Grindhouse double feature.
In the end, Brewer's attempts to slather the exploitation genre with a molasses-thick gloss of irony is all superficial flash and style without some fundamental engagement with or enlargement of the form.
Brewer has baited his mousetrap of oh-so-forbidden black-white luv with a movie poster of angry black man Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) hulking over half-dressed white girl Rae (Christina Ricci), a slave shackle around her ankle instead. Brewer has cited as an influence Tennessee Williams' Southern gothic heroines such as Carroll Baker in Baby Doll. But his anti-heroine Rae is more like a "Hee-Haw" cum blue-movie fantasy: the sex-starved Southern beyatch. Brewer has said misogyny is not his thing, but some critics have found occasion to nevertheless slurp up this sleazy archetype. Channeling his inner Hustler, Film Comment critic Nathan Lee describes nympho Rae thusly: "slimmed down to knuckles and elbows, with hair the color of piss on linoleum, and squeezed into filthy little panties, ass-flappin' daisy dukes, mangy Confederate T-shirt cut off just below the nipples. Perpetually erect nipples, aching to be sucked, pinched, bit, bled."
Finding his signature image in the form of Ricci in a Rebel-flag half-shirt and middle finger flipped at the world, Brewer fuels this country-fried grind-house nostalgia with an eroticized take on child sexual abuse. Rae is a trailer dweller with a soldier boy (Justin Timberlake, playing the one human being in a cast of Jack Chick caricatures) being shipped off to Iraq, leaving the poor girl to writhe and ramble in a protracted case of post-traumatic horniness. In Brewer's tortured imagination, it was abuse that turned Rae into a slut who wriggles like a python when she can't "git some."
Despite its pretense of mining such wounded souls, Black Snake Moan expends far more energy relishing Rae's vulnerable body mounted and beaten by a succession of creeps in the manner of I Spit on Your Grave than it does crafting a believable or sentient character.
If Rae is consumed with desire, then black farmer Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is consumed with hate. The scorned Lazarus has a no-account wife who has left him for his baby brother, causing Lazarus to steep in a pot liquor of rage. Like Terrence Howard's DJay in Hustle & Flow, Lazarus is a soulful black man who can only express his emotions in the wail of the blues. With his weird mix of Bible-thumping and juke-joint emoting, Lazarus suggests some overly spiced gumbo of New Testament and dime-store pulp novel.
When a battered Rae turns up on his doorstep, Lazarus chains Rae to a radiator to exorcise her sexual demons. Brewer suggests he can see the humor in such extremity even as he indulges in the excesses of sexual degradation and casual violence.
It's all just from-the-gut gonzo trash cinema, no?
The Girls Gone Wild crowd may accept Black Snake Moan as guilt-free good times, but others may have a hard time chugalugging Brewer's recycled stereotypes wrapped in a brutal, bottom-feeding brand of sleaze.
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