Lazarus used to play the blues. Now he lives them. The one-time barroom guitarist/singer’s marriage was already on the rocks. Now his cheating wife tells him she feels old when he’s around, that their union has meant nothing and that she’s “got some livin’ to do.” It isn’t long before he finds out that “living” means running off with his own brother.
Rae can relate. Known as the town tramp with an insatiable sexual itch, she’s finally found a man to settle down with, someone who’s willing to accept her despite her adulterous habits. Only problem is, Ronnie’s leaving for the army. And it isn’t an hour after he’s gone that Rae falls back into the only lifestyle she knows.
After a night of drugs, drinking and being used like a sexual rag doll, Rae ends up badly beaten and dumped on the side of a dirt road. It’s Lazarus who discovers her unconscious form near his dusty driveway and takes her in to care for her. But when he finds out who she is and experiences her “sexual spells” firsthand, the aging black man vows to change this young white girl’s ways. “God seen fit to put you in my path,” he says, “and I aim to cure you of your wickedness.”
By chaining her up.
To his credit, Lazarus refuses to treat Rae the way every other man in her life has. Despite times when she wants and tempts him to use her sexually, he resists. Obviously, his unorthodox (and inhumane) way of taming her is well beyond questionable, and the fact that he means well just doesn’t cut it. Yet it’s still worth noting here that Lazarus’ intent is to prove to Rae that she doesn’t have to be governed by her cravings for sex, that she can actually feel like a woman should—loved, respected and worth something.
To that ironic degree, Black Snake Moan attempts to convey a powerful message about overcoming personal strongholds. Both Rae and Ronnie have serious issues (he suffers from crippling anxiety attacks), yet with the help of Lazarus and his good friend, the preacher R.L., they are challenged to “get [their] s— together and get on with life.” Lazarus and Rae develop a unique relationship that defies social (and moral) norms yet seems authentic. More than once he shelters her after a traumatic incident, and he promises to always be there for her.
A pharmacist helps out Lazarus (though she ultimately steals from the company she works for), and he offers her a gift to thank her.
Raw, misguided, twisted and, despite the film’s Deep South setting, typical Hollywood. Black Snake Moan finds preachers drinking and cussing alongside other supposedly “God-fearing Christians.” For example, after spouting the s-word, R.L. launches into a prayer for Lazarus, asking the Heavenly Father to provide divine strength for his friend. Later, it’s Lazarus who draws attention to the preacher’s expressions of “g–d–n,” saying, “In your line of work, I wouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”
But it isn’t just the foul language—abundant as that may be—used by believers that’s the biggest issue here. It’s the unbiblical sermonettes that seem to pass as spiritual truth. While beating up his brother and threatening his life, Lazarus randomly speaks of how Cain slew Abel and “God put a mark on him for his sin.” Not long after, we find R.L. excusing the bluesman’s actions, adding, “I think you did alright by God under the circumstances.”
More significantly, Lazarus transforms almost instantly from a levelheaded Good Samaritan into a malicious, crazed, shotgun-toting recluse … after reading the Bible. When Rae objects to being chained up like an animal, he screams, “I saved your life, I can do whatever the f— I want!” He then cruelly adds, “Like Jesus said, I gonna sup with you.” It’s similar to the heated meeting in which Lazarus’ wife announces she’s leaving him. After viciously grabbing her arm, he says, “God forgive you for what you done to me,” then threatens, “You better pray, girl!” To which she responds, “Don’t you put a curse on me!”
Amid several other references to God, heaven and church (including a reading of 1 Corinthians 13:11-13 at a wedding), a telling scene has R.L. sitting down for a heart-to-heart with Rae. The two talk candidly about the gospel message of repentance, which Rae thinks is ludicrous because “you can’t just turn around and ask for forgiveness” after you’ve lived a lifestyle of sin—”Why would heaven want people like that?” R.L.’s response? “People carry on about heaven too much.” Still, he’s right on track when he says, “There’s sin in my heart, evil in the world … but when I’m all alone, I talk to God.”
The opening scene of Rae and Ronnie engaged in intercourse sets the stage for a film saturated with sex, nudity, erotic images, vulgar and obscene dialogue, and double entendres. More than once we see Rae’s bare breasts during, before or after an explicitly depicted sexual encounter with various men. Most of these men treat Rae as a piece of meat, and we’re often confronted with disturbing images of them dismounting her and pulling up their pants after they’ve “finished their business.”
It’s intimated that a sexually abusive past has triggered something in Rae that’s made her like, as one “user” crudely puts it, “a dog in heat.” And the camera refuses to miss a minute of her orgasmic-like cravings—in which she rolls around seductively, clawing at her own body and seemingly needing to have sex with the first male she can get her hands on.
During one bout of sexual itchiness, Rae strips off her top and pounces on an unsuspecting (very young-looking) teen who comes knocking on Lazarus’ door. Since the bluesman isn’t home, the couple has sex (not shown). When they’re found, Lazarus chases the boy out of the house … then goes and essentially congratulates him in private. As he talks with the frazzled, confused boy, Lazarus excuses the incident, saying, “That wasn’t your fault. … Any young man alive couldn’t have kept his pants on.” After discovering it was the boy’s “first time,” he compares it to his own loss of virginity, verbally pats the boy on the back for doing the deed with someone as wild and experienced as Rae, and offers him a cigarette.
So goes the gutter mentality of this moral black hole that somehow finds it suitable to combine rape scenes (referenced in “Violent Content”) with eroticized close-ups that accentuate Rae’s barely-covered curves. It’s truly sick stuff … and it makes it almost pointless to mention that Rae spends most of the movie in her bra and panties. Or that there are countless repugnant references to various types of sex and sexual body parts. Or that virtually every character seems to live by the standard that there “ain’t no better cure for the blues than some good p—y.”
One of the film’s most disturbing images is of a drugged-out-of-her-mind Rae getting raped in plain view of everyone playing a game of pickup football. Though the sexual motions are minimal, we see a man pulling up his pants, running back to the game and leaving a half-naked, motionless Rae lying on the ground. In similar fashion, Rae has an ongoing nightmare/vision that features a man approaching her with a cigarette lighter, holding it to her skin and ripping off her underwear before he rapes her. (The scene always ends right before the actual rape occurs.)
Again drunk and high, Rae is harshly beaten and dumped on the side of the road. We see the brute throwing hard punches at her face, and we later see it bloodied and bruised through several scenes. Lazarus attacks his brother (who’s stolen his wife), then smashes a bottle close to the man’s face and threatens to use the cut glass to finish him off. In the process, he slices his own hand. Back at his house, he smashes a few of his wife’s things in anger after her leaving sinks in.
Rae tries to run when Lazarus chains her and, during one attempted escape, gets yanked off her feet. An exasperated Lazarus pulls a gun on the preacher, who then dares him to shoot. Other altercations featuring Rae and Ronnie include punches, kicks, blows to the groin, gunplay, etc.
Lazarus tells a tragic story about his wife suddenly deciding to abort their only child (“She done cut it out”). Rae’s mother implies she wishes she’d done the same thing.
The f-word and s-word are both used almost 50 times apiece in various forms. God’s name is profaned about two-dozen times, mostly in combination with “d–n.” Jesus’ name gets misused twice. The n-word is interjected repeatedly. Rae makes an obscene gesture.
Virtually every major character is shown smoking and drinking heavily and repeatedly. Hard liquor and beer are ever-present at bars and parties. Lazarus and Rae share a particularly sharp homegrown liquor. Before Lazarus performs in front of a crowd, the alcohol-swigging preacher shares his flask with the blues player.
A girlfriend of Rae’s smokes a joint. When offered various “out of body” drugs, Rae’s friend responds, “You just trying to get me out of my clothes.” For her part, Rae downs as many pills as it takes to “get me f—ed up.” A town drug-dealer brags about selling crack cocaine among other substances, and he later asks if Lazarus wants some marijuana.
Ronnie steals his friend’s truck (after beating him up). Rae spits in Lazarus’ face. Ronnie throws up in a toilet.
Toward the end of Black Snake Moan one of the film’s rare (if not only) decent characters sings the refrain of an old spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole/There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
It’s probably the only shining, unmistakable truth in a depraved, at times despicable story devoted to sin, addiction, perversion and the fallen human condition. And in all honesty, it seemed completely out of place. Not because it came from the lips of a likeable character, or because it underscored the film’s tantalizing epilogue that there is hope for healing.
No, her song stuck out like a sore thumb because of the depth of moral double-mindedness this movie proffers. For every redeeming statement or action presented, it seems writer/director Craig Brewer’s intent was to do everything he could to pulverize the message. As a result we get, for instance, Lazarus suddenly telling Rae (after spending the entire movie trying to “cure” her), “It ain’t on me to change your life or anyone else’s. S—, people do whatever the h— they want. You ain’t got but one life, you oughta live it the way you want.”
No matter what point Black Snake Moan tries to make about abuse or addiction, no matter what message of salvation it tries to preach, then, it cannot because it stubbornly refuses to free itself from its own chains.