(Yeah, yeah, it's a little late. The movie's already out on DVD, I know. Well, sorry, I missed it initially but I've finally caught up with it... and I'm sure glad that I did.)
It's rare to find a film that so obviously embraces a moral truth, let alone a moral truth that is rather traditional, even if that traditional truth comes wrapped in rather untraditional trappings. People need people, especially broken people, and sometimes with a little love - and some solid chains - two broken halves can be bound together to make one whole. Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan is a film of suffering and solace. It emerges out of that desperate, shaking need to give up control and collapse into another's arms, to recoil away from the isolation of your own life and find solace and peace in a life lived as two.
Samuel L. Jackson, in perhaps his best role since Pulp Fiction, plays Lazarus, an aging religious Mississippi farmer and blue musician whose wife has recently left him for his brother. Christina Ricci, who has never been better, plays Rae, an abused and broken women who, though desperately in love with Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), must compulsively have sex with whoever is closest and most convenient. When Ronnie leaves to join the army, Rae spirals out of control and eventually and inevitably is taken advantage of, beaten and left for dead on the road beside Lazarus' farm. When Lazarus brings her in to tend her wounds he quickly realizes that her physical hurts are the least of her many problems and decides on the spot to cure her of her "itch" by any means necessary which, as it so happens, means chaining her to the radiator in order to prevent her from running off to couple with the first warm body she finds. It's a daring set up, especially given the movie's uncompromising hard edge, which includes a heap of profanity and a strong dose of nudity, all of which exist against a sweltering Mississippi backdrop, where a black man chaining a white women to a radiator is a rather risky proposition indeed. The movie's hardly a racial parable, though. Instead, it's a parable and a metaphor for love and morality that is surprisingly tender and affectionate in spite of, or perhaps because of, these extreme elements.
The central image of Black Snake Moan is the chain that ties Rae to the radiator. The obvious and most conventional implications of the image are of sexual bondage and degradation. But while Brewer slyly plays on these implications he never quite legitimizes them. Instead, the chain becomes a metaphor for freedom, which, though it sounds ironic, is a wildly traditional and religious concept. Rae's "freedom" has pushed her to the very limits of death and desperation; her "imprisonment" by Lazarus is cleansing and redemptive, a type of sexual detox. The so-called freedoms and liberations of modern society are transparently destructive, as Rae herself gradually realizes. This growing self-awareness leads to an amazing scene where Rae, unable to trust herself, clings desperately to the radiator, not wanting to succumb to her compulsion but helpless to avoid it. The chain becomes her redemption and, without giving away too much, it returns in the final act in an affectionate and loving style that makes perfect sense. By submitting to what appears to be imprisonment or bondage, Rae frees herself from her slavery to her own broken impulses and addictions. The chain is an image of grace and becomes one of the movie's true symbols of love.
Black Snake Moan is about broken people. But, far from being a depressing excursion into human misery, it is a surprisingly hopeful film. These broken people find redemption and fulfillment in giving themselves to other people, people who are just as broken as them. Lazarus, descending into rage after his wife leaves with his brother, finds meaning and tenderness once again by becoming the father of Rae; Rae, previously living her life only in pain and humiliation, is redeemed both by Lazarus' efforts to save her and by her love for Ronnie, an equally broken soul who must also lean on Rae or suffocate under the weight of his own anxiety. The idea of two people completing each other is rarely this well articulated on screen. Underneath all of chains, the profanity and the nymphomania, Black Snake Moan is a sharp, unrelenting and almost homiletic look at the reasons and the solutions for human pain.