A tale of sex and salvation
The parties involved in “Black Snake Moan,” writer-director Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his 2005 Sundance sensation “Hustle & Flow,” are well aware the film will make audiences squirm a little.
As Brewer put it in an interview the other day, “Will it shock people? Yes, it will be a flash of cold water for some, but like the food in the South, it has some kick to it, but in the end, it’s still comfort food.”
Maybe. When the “Black Snake Moan” trailer played at a recent showing of “The Queen” in a Santa Monica art house, you could almost feel the audience shudder. And really, who could blame the Helen Mirren fans for being weirded out? This is what the trailer showed:
A tiny, unconscious dirty blond in white underpants and a skimpy crop top (Christina Ricci) is shoved out of a truck and left for dead on a country road. She is scooped up by a huge, nervous black man (Samuel L. Jackson), who carries her like war spoils into his isolated, ramshackle house. When she comes to, she is a prisoner, bound to his radiator by a tow chain and padlock anchored around her tiny, white waist. Oh, and by the way, she’s the town nymphomaniac.
Creeped out yet? Don’t be. He’s not going to savage her, he’s going to save her.
“It’s a good-will-toward-man kind of message,” said Ricci, 26, who was in Los Angeles, getting ready for Wednesday’s Sundance premiere of “Black Snake Moan,” which opens in theaters on Feb. 23. As preposterous as that sounds, that was the filmmaker’s subversive intention.
“Black Snake Moan,” said Brewer, who borrowed the title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, “is a kind of stew. A Southern narrative. This constant circle of sex and fear and lust and God.” (With a happy ending.)
Jackson’s character, Lazarus, is a former bluesman whose wife left him for his younger brother. In need of a little redemption himself, he sets out to save Ricci’s character, Rae, whose childhood sexual abuse has led to a post-traumatic-stress-ish anxiety disorder, which causes her to seek, as Ricci put it, “random, soul-abusing sex.”
Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie, played by Justin Timberlake, who also suffers anxiety attacks, has been shipped off to boot camp, and his absence untethers her, which leads her, eventually, to several violent sexual encounters, and Lazarus.
The premise for the movie, said Brewer, 35, who is to arrive in Park City today, sprang from his own experience with panic attacks, which started when studios began expressing interest in his “Hustle & Flow” script several years ago. “Suddenly, Hollywood was interested, and for two or three years, people were flying me out from Memphis and saying, ‘We want to do it but not with you; we want to do it but we don’t want Terrence [Howard].’ ” (Howard ended up with an Oscar nomination for best actor last year.)
It was all too much for the aspiring director, who with one tiny feature under his belt (“The Poor and Hungry”) was selling his furniture to make ends meet. The first panic attack happened on a plane; he was sure it was a heart attack, an affliction that killed his father at age 49. A flight attendant sat with him and diagnosed the problem as anxiety, not a coronary. (That offended him at first; isn’t panic for wimps?) He was able to tame the bouts with the support of his wife, who would calm him by phone when they were apart and actually lie on top of him when they were together, a technique that Rae and Ronnie use in the film.
“The journey is always going to bring these problems,” Brewer said, “but they will go away if you hold on to each other and not to try to judge and just love. I know that sounds hippie, but I believe it, and I wanted ‘Black Snake Moan’ to be a journey that makes everybody feel better.”
As “Hustle & Flow” was to rap, “Black Snake Moan” is to the blues. (Brewer’s next film, “Maggie Lynn,” is about country music.) Jackson, in fact, took up the guitar for the role (apparently, he was already an inveterate karaoke singer) and his very persuasive, improvisational rendering of the old song “Stagger Lee” provides the film’s climax.
Ricci, who spends a big chunk of the first part of the film in her underpants, said she achieved her hollow-eyed town-slut look by eating nothing but sugar and other foods with no nutritional value. “I wanted to look like somebody who doesn’t take care of herself,” said Ricci, who has talked in the past about her teenage bout with anorexia. “I think I looked pretty damn unhealthy. Actually, I don’t like eating healthy, so I was pretty OK with it. It was my dream diet, actually.”
She spent most of her time on the Tennessee set in that state of undress, she said, because it was important for her to feel comfortable half-naked and for the crew to feel comfortable as well. “It was kind of like staying in accent,” she said.
Brewer admitted that Rae’s off-the-shoulder, cut-off sweat shirt look was inspired by an unlikely source: “I am a big ‘Flashdance’ fanatic,” he said. “I love that gray sweat shirt, off-the-shoulder Jennifer Beals thing.” And, he told Ricci, “I’d like to play the Civil War across your chest.” Her wisp of a shirt is emblazoned with the American flag on one breast, the Confederate flag on the other and two crossed revolvers in the middle.
Part of the weird fascination with the outfit is that you can’t believe, with all the flailing about, that Ricci’s breasts stay covered. “Yeah,” said Brewer, sounding satisfied, “there was a noble battle of gravity going on in that shirt.”
And then, of course, there was the matter of the chain. Ricci was offered a plastic version, but she decided it was easier to wear a real, 40-pound chain rather than act as if she were wearing one. The chain was uncomfortable, but the rough sex scenes were even more painful, she said, partly because one of her fellow cast members, rap producer David Banner, had no previous acting experience. Banner plays Tehronne, a drug dealer with whom she has a degrading sex scene.
“When people are simulating something, one person is responsible for throwing and the other is responsible for reacting, and there should not be that much force involved,” Ricci said. “I think that was not understood by Craig and Dave, who were not so experienced.” In one scene with Banner, Ricci said: “I was being hurt. It kind of felt like being raped. It was hard. I felt terrible, but it wasn’t Dave’s fault at all.”
Brewer, for his part, said it was difficult to see Ricci in distress and to know, exactly, when to yell “Cut!” “She is so good that I would be afraid to cut,” he said. “I want everyone to feel safe and comfortable, but she did tear herself up considerably for this role.”