I’m exploring something that has nothing to do with race or gender. I’m the crazy girl on the end of that chain. I’m the one who felt I was losing control of my mind and my body because I was not tethered to anyone. And I needed to be snapped back. I needed my father, who died at 49 of a heart attack, to tell me, “It’s gonna be OK, and you’re not alone. Everybody goes crazy at certain times in their life. You’re entitled to some happiness, you’re entitled to some unconditional love. And it will never stop. You will constantly be getting punched in the gut, being exploited, being judged.”
— Craig Brewer, Salon
Oh, the blues is a worried old heart disease.
— Son House, “Jinx Blues”
“Love makes you do things you don’t wanna do.” So pronounces an old bluesman at the start of Black Snake Moan, which proceeds to take up this theme with a vengeance. Though no one in the movie is precisely in love, most everyone is in a terrible state, lusting or raging after someone else (or maybe just a dream of someone else), and so doing all kinds of things they don’t want to do.
Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) first appear on screen in a series of close-ups, engaged in sweaty, desperate-looking sex. He’s a National Guardsman about to ship off to Iraq and she’s dead set against it. Though he insists he’s doing it “for us,” supporting the girl he wants to marry, she’s feeling abandoned even before he goes, their discord suggested when she sucks on a post-coital cigarette as he dons his fatigues. Cut to the next moment, in which Ronnie’s own anxiety bears down upon him: he spends his last precious moments at home with his head in the toilet, puking. She pats his back and worries.
Ronnie’s departure occasions the first indication of Rae’s own “sickness.” This would be her wholly uncontrollable nymphomania, an awkwardly metaphorical condition that allows for some awfully tedious clichés, most involving Rae’s naked, bloodied, and bleakly skinny body. After trotting a few steps after the pickup truck that’s bearing her Ronnie away, she drops to her knees, crying and writhing in the grass. Her sickness is thus set in rudimentary opposition to Ronnie’s: he’s unmanned by his anxiety, she’s hyper-sexualized by her “need.” Urgent, reckless, and gasping, the girl is all about poverty — of psyche and spirit as much as property. The movie accords her a bit of hackneyed psychodrama as motivation, in the form of a recurring flashback: a blurry male menace holds a lighter near her, providing more blur and some literal heat. He proves (predictably, given her generic white-trashiness) to be her stepfather and she seeks to repeat this trauma with her many partners.
One is something of a “regular” but their sex again suggests her pain. First pictured behind her in doggy-style pose, Tehronne (hip-hop artist David Banner) is offered up as a sign of Rae’s lack of control, introduced via her “don’t-leave-me-Ronnie” moaning, blended with crickets’ calls. But, as Tehronne acknowledges her (they do have conversations), Rae must take up a more conspicuous rock-bottom. Donning miniskirt and Confederate flag t-shirt, she sashays into town, the camera loving her near-concave belly. At the bar she drinks beer, smokes pot and pops some pills before hooking up with a few gnarly white guys, one beating her senseless before he dumps her by the side of the road.
Justin Timberlake and Christina Ricci
Samuel L. Jackson
Thus begins Rae’s last best chance at redemption, embodied by the obviously named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). He’s got his own issues: his first words in the film, concerning the wife who’s leaving him, are, “I never laid a hand on her in anger,” though Rose (Adriane Lenox) suggests that God will have to forgive him for “what you done to me.” Her instruction provides the film with a kind of ethos: “When folks get sick, they do what they can to get on the mend.” Despairing over his loss, Lazarus is revealed to be a righteous bluesman, dedicated to his art even if he is mad at the heartbreaking turns that inspire it. This character detail allows Jackson to lean over a guitar and make earnest music about evil women and Stack-o-Lee, as he seeks his own redemption.
He finds it at the end of his driveway: Rae, dumped. Moved to save her (“Little lady! Open your eyes for me”), he also knows he can’t turn her over to authorities (“I’ve been toe to toe with the police in this town,” he explains, “just for being black and nearby”). And so Lazarus carries her waify-vavoomy body inside, depositing her on his sofa so she can sleep away her fever. So you can feel assured he’s not going to fall for the Little Lady, he finds more “appropriate” congress with a woman nearer his age: he sweet-talks fever-reducing syrup out of most wondrous drugstore clerk, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson). What he doesn’t tell Angela — or anyone else for that matter — is his solution to Rae’s ailment, or, as he puts it to her, “the hold the devil’s got on you.” Believing that “God seen fit to put you in my path and I am to cure you from your wickedness.”
That Lazarus’ means to this end is a big old clanky chain around her waist is not a little distressing. However much Craig Brewer believes that he is transposing his own “need to be snapped back” onto a fictional girl, the fact is that this fiction has history apart from him. If the chain itself might be defended as grindhouse homage, the woman defined by her wretched sexual “desire” is less subversive than exasperating. Both a promise and threat, Rae is a perfect cultural product and a disquieting caricature. Her need for a reassuring “father,” unlike, say, Brewer’s, is infinitely complicated by the fact that hers raped her, repeatedly.
Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci
Still, the movie sets Rae en route to spiritual self-understanding with the chain. It thuds on the wood floor as she tests its strength and wonders at Lazarus’ nerve. Bolting outside, she runs just far enough so that her stop is spectacular: the chain clangs, the dust flies, her body rises briefly before slamming back to the hard earth. Her defiance rendered as visual slapstick, scrawny, bruised-faced Rae is reduced to abject body. As if to underline, the film offers yet another instance of her lack of control — even on the chain. Left alone for just a moment, she assaults a neighbor boy named Lincoln (Neimus K. Williams), who’s partly appalled and partly thrilled by this lucky loss of his virginity. Lazarus interrupts, sympathetic to young Lincoln’s poor judgment (“Not your fault,” he says, blaming instead the “girl in heat”), but persists in his course of treatment.
And in this treatment the film has some cake and eats it too. Lazarus redefines Rae’s options. He tells Tehronne to back off (“That girl’s in my family”), feeds her corn on the cob from his own field, and buys her a pretty dress (he asks the clerk for something that makes “a woman feel like a woman and not look like a hussy or a floozy,” because, of course, these are the only options for women’s dresses). He also washes Rae in the tub and soothes her after a showdown with her unreservedly mean mother (who tells Rae outright that she’s sorry she had her), and perhaps most important, he sings the blues for her.
The blues is the film’s richest vein for imagery and ideas, and Lazarus’ performances — in public and for Rae alone — are sincerely, effectively aching. It may be that the repeated image of Rae chained up represents another sort of pain. “I think we’re fucked up,” she concludes, “But that don’t mean what I feel isn’t real.” It’s a suitably blues-informed notion, that the realness in itself is a value. But her body-as-cliché remains intact, whether spilling out of her t-shirt or wrapped up in her little white wedding dress.