Southern Movie #3: “Black Snake Moan”

What do I say about 2006’s “Black Snake Moan”? I don’t know. When Hollywood gets hold of the Deep South, the results are always questionable. (I cite the comedy “Sweet Home Alabama” and the 2001 remake of the suspense-thriller “Straw Dogs” as the worst offenders.) The strange premise of the story – a sexual abuse victim being forcibly “saved” by a disaffected old bluesman – caused me to avoid it for a long time. But I watched it recently, even though I was positive that it was going to be awful and hokey and chock-full of stereotypes.

This film, which is set in rural Mississippi, opens with naked Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake rollin’ in the hay right before Timberlake’s character Ronnie will head off to military duty, leaving his sex-starved girlfriend Rae to fight the urge to masturbate in the field next to their trash-strewn trailer. She moans and groans and writhes around, as the long-bed two-tone pickup carries him off down a dusty road.

So how does our main character satiate her immediate loneliness? By getting bent over the half-bath sink in a cheap motel room by the local black crack dealer. Needing to relieve the tension of her departed lover, our lascivious main character Rae then goes to a drug-addled, booze-soaked shindig, where she and others play naked football in a muddy field, and where she gets mounted again by some unnamed dude who gets right back up and starts playing ball again. If we hadn’t expected a blues-tinged story called “Black Snake Moan” to be about sex, the point gets made immediately and repeatedly.

We also get to meet Lazarus – played by Samuel L. Jackson – an aging former bluesman whose wife is leaving him for another man. Though we first meet him in a bitter and resentful scene of public humiliation, we quickly get to know him as a well-liked community member with highly respected butter beans. Astute music fans will gather from his character that this is the hill country of Mississippi; early on, Lazarus sits down with an acoustic six-string to play RL Burnside’s “Bird Without A Feather,” and later, a tune from Otha Turner makes a brief appearance.

The two unlikely participants meet when Lazarus finds Rae, half-naked and unconscious, in the middle of the rural road by his house. Rae has been beaten and bloodied by her boyfriend’s shit-heel buddy Gill— the film’s Iago. Lazarus decides to take in the delirious stray, clean her up and buy her medicine, feed her some good grub . . . and chain her to the radiator until she’s well enough to suit him. The movie’s plot continues from there, as the settled-down old black man tries to reform this wild young white woman, who he learns has been severely molested by her father.

Soon, when Ronnie returns from duty, discharged for severe anxiety, Gill is there to make him aware of Rae’s shenanigans. Disconsolate from the mixture of his shame and his unfaithful lover, Ronnie goes looking for Rae. He finds her in Lazarus’ house, and in the climactic scene, we see the elder man face down his gun-toting accuser who hasn’t got the guts to pull the trigger. As “Black Snake Moan” ends, Ronnie and Rae get married in an impromptu ceremony and drive off to attempt marital bliss, just the two of them . . . and their numerous neuroses.

“Black Snake Moan” actually does a better job of portraying the rural Deep South than most Hollywood movies that try. However, the flaws are very real. Justin Timberlake’s accent disappears almost immediately, and despite working out in his fields, Lazarus’ work clothes are always clean. I was also put off by the utter clichés in Rae’s costuming: shabby Daisy Dukes and a cut-off t-shirt that had a Confederate flag on it. (C’mon, guys, you couldn’t be more imaginative than that?) With highly tempered quasi-exuberance, the compliments I am willing to offer “Black Snake Moan” are: it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, and I’m not completely ashamed of having watched it.

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