I want to talk for a moment about typecasting – sometimes, earlier in their career, an actor plays a role so well, they are permanently cast in that type of role. Some of them use it to their advantage, and some of them desperately try to expand their career horizons. Samuel L. Jackson has been known for his performances as hardcore, foul-mouthed tough guys who have a certain rugged charm but are even more terrifying. It has worked out for him, as it has made him really well-liked and wealthy, but it also leaves the opportunity for him to try something different and surprise us, such as his performance in Black Snake Moan.
The idea of a middle-aged man holding a young lady hostage in his home by chaining her up to rid her of her crass urges sounds horrifying and something completely inappropriate. I thought I was going to watch a disturbing, cauterizing film. Instead, it is presented in a very endearing way. The main character of Lazarus is not a pervert or sociopath. He has a very big heart and is struggling with a divorce, so when the opportunity comes whereby a damaged young lady, played wonderfully by Christina Ricci, crosses his path, he finds it as a message to fix her and make her a decent woman, even if it means chaining her up to a radiator. I know, on paper it still sounds very disturbing, but in the way the story is told, and how the relationship between the two characters develops, you realize that this is something completely different than what anyone would think.
It is shown with both Lazarus and Rae that they had unfulfilled lives with their families. It is implied that Rae’s mother had her when she was very young, and she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend as a child. Rae was robbed of a strong father figure and thus could not have a normal childhood. On the other end of the spectrum, Lazarus grew up normally, but had to deal with a wife who thought very little of their marriage, finding Lazarus’ old school decency and faithfulness a bore. All Lazarus wanted was a loving wife with a whole gaggle of children running around their farm, but an abortion and a divorce left him broken and alone. So it seems fitting that these two characters meet while Rae is on the side of the road, beaten and left for dead (a very unconventional meet-cute).
Lazarus finally has the opportunity to quench his thirst for a child – he wanted someone who he could raise and instill positive values in, and Rae gets a father figure – a surrogate parent who helps fix her broken soul and who treats her like a princess, leading her in the right direction. The chains Lazarus places around Rae represents the hold of a parent – you can wander around and have a little bit of freedom, but you can’t survive completely independently before you learn about life itself. When Lazarus finally lets go of the chains, it represents the melancholic period in every parent’s life when they have to just let their child go. It is a beautiful commentary on parent/child relationships.
Craig Brewer knows something about framing a shot and bringing out the life in a scene. His writing elevates the material and allows the actors to not simply play characters, but fully-developed, interesting people. Of course, this film could’ve been made very dark, with dingy interiors and gritty filmmaking – but a lot of the film’s positive, hopeful tone lies in the fact that Brewer chose vibrant colors and a killer soundtrack to turn this from a potentially creepy, disturbing thriller into an entertaining dark comedy.
Black Snake Moan is quite a unique film – with two great performances by our two leads (which actually serve to be both Jackson and Ricci’s finest performances yet) and particularly entertaining supporting roles by the underrated S. Epatha Merkerson and Justin Timberlake, who actually is very convincing in his performance as the damaged boyfriend. It is a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. Very few films end with the genuine emotion that this had, and that’s quite an achievement. The entire film is a remarkable achievement in cinema, and one that despite not really being noticed when it will released, will no doubt become a cult classic over the next few years.