It’s Hard Out There for a Ho

The puzzling sexual games of Black Snake Moan. 

Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan

You only had to see the blaxploitation-style poster of Christina Ricci chained and kneeling at Samuel L. Jackson’s feet to know that Black Snake Moan (Paramount Classics) was going to be a provocative rebel yell of a movie. A middle-aged black man in the South chains a young white woman to his radiator to cure her of nymphomania and succeeds: What a rich exploration of racial and sexual archetypes! What a daring challenge to viewers’ expectations! Or maybe: What bullshit.

I guarantee that the words provocative, bold, and courageous will be bandied about in discussions of this movie, and they won’t be entirely misplaced. Writer and director Craig Brewer, who made 2005’s Hustle and Flow, has a fine sense of locale (here, the Tennessee countryside), a way of coaxing thrilling performances from actors, and terrific taste in music. But can we just start with something very basic here? Chaining someone to your radiator is wrong. Depriving a near-naked and recently assaulted stranger of the most basic physical liberty for days on end is a sick, perverse, and cruel thing to do. Black Snake Moan appears to be—or, worse, pretends to be—oblivious to that simple fact. And that obliviousness makes all of the movie’s supposed risk-taking seem more like exploitation.

Before I get ahead of myself with analysis, let me go back and set up the movie. We open on a scene of Rae (Ricci) desperately banging her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), who’s Iraq-bound with the National Guard. Moments after seeing Ronnie off with a promise to be true, Rae is getting dirty with a burly black drug dealer. That same night, she gets high at a party, has semiconsensual sex on a football field, and is subsequently raped, beaten, and left for dead by Ronnie’s best friend.

It’s hard out there for a ho—until Rae meets Lazarus, the embittered farmer and former bluesman played by Samuel Jackson, who finds Rae by the side of the road and takes her in. Sprawled half-conscious on the couch inside Lazarus’ country shack, Rae displays signs of “the sickness,” a kind of erotic fever whose symptoms include writhing in panties and scratching at one’s thighs. Lazarus, determined to drive out the demons from this suffering young woman, submerges her in an ice-cold bath (actually a terrible way to treat a fever, but let’s hope no one is watching this movie for first-aid advice), reads to her from the Bible, and eventually padlocks her to the radiator with that large, clanking chain.

All this sounds like the setup for Saw or Hostel, a sadistic B-movie about sexual torture and humiliation. Instead, Black Snake Moan morphs into a wacky intergenerational bonding movie, something closer to Harold and Maude or The Karate Kid with a dusting of Southern grit. Lazarus and Rae, as it turns out, aren’t a couple but twins: Stubborn, damaged, and lonely, they each need something from the other. She, I guess, needs to be chained, and he needs to chain someone, but just for a little while—until they both learn how to trust again. Bondage and captivity are this movie’s meet-cute.

With the help of a folksy preacher (John Cothran Jr.) and a preternaturally nice pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson), Lazarus and Rae’s relationship segues seamlessly from imprisonment into a cozy father-daughter bond. Toward the end, when a transformed Rae is seen wearing a gold belly chain, it’s even suggested that the piece of jewelry represents the spiritual journey the two lost souls have taken together. But there’s nothing symbolic about the large, heavy metal chain binding, and bruising, Ricci’s impossibly tiny waist for the first part of this movie. I’m sorry, but in the age of Abu Ghraib and Alberto Gonzales torture memos, it seems important to say it again: Chaining people and holding them against their will is not the right thing to do. By that I don’t mean, simplistically, that Jackson’s character is “bad” and should be punished at the end of the film. I mean that the questions—ethical, sexual, racial, whatever—that are raised by this initial act of violence are never addressed.

Just as in Hustle and Flow, there’s an unsubtle message here that race trumps gender. In that movie, Terrence Howard’s character was meant to remain the focus of our attention and sympathy even after he threw one of his hookers out into the street with her baby as punishment for talking back. I never forgave the character for that act, and by the end of the movie, I couldn’t have given a shit whether he achieved rap fame or not (with the “boo-hoo, I’m a pimp” song that he neither wrote nor sang by himself but ran around taking full credit for).

Black Snake Moan’s misogyny is a little subtler than Hustle and Flow’s, not least because of Christina Ricci’s subtle and compassionate rendering of what could have been a one-note character. In interviews, Brewer makes it clear that “nymphomania” is a nonexistent condition, an invention of cultural fantasy. But you’d never know that from watching Black Snake Moan, which would rather indulge that fantasy than provide its own characters with credible motivations. Ricci’s character spends days in nothing but a cut-off Confederate-flag T-shirt and white panties—the outfit in which Lazarus found her, raped and beaten, by the side of the road. If Lazarus is supposed to be so concerned with Rae’s well-being, not to mention immune to her sexual appeal, wouldn’t he insist she change into one of his clean shirts right away? Brewer stirs the pot with commendable bravado, but he seems curiously uninterested in thinking through the issues of race and gender that he himself raises. Rae and Lazarus—but particularly Rae—are archetypes one minute, characters the next, depending on the emotional reaction the movie needs from its audience in any given scene.

On a tangential note—or maybe not so tangential—it’s sad to see Christina Ricci’s barely covered skeleton offered up as an object of salacious contemplation. She’s so thin her head looks like a lollipop on a stick. Ricci’s lush physicality has always been of a piece with the offbeat roles she chooses to take on, a bodacious “fuck you” to Hollywood standards.I loved her curvy form in Buffalo 66, The Opposite of Sex, and Monster, those childlike bug-eyes contrasting with that voluptuous, womanly shape. But in Black Snake Moan (and in the ubiquitous press photos accompanying its rollout), Ricci has dieted herself into near-invisibility. Is this level of scrawniness even appropriate for the character? If the town slut in backwoods Tennessee can’t have a little meat on her bones, who can?