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Ugly redemption

Movies | Black Snake Moan is a filthy film about the gospel

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

Black Snake Moan (rated R for graphic sexuality and language) is an odd film. The movie's previews promise an unusual paradox: A gray-headed black man tugs on a steel chain around some trashy white nymph, all the while talking of God.

Lazarus (Samuel Jackson), a notorious but forgotten bluesman, finds Rae (Christina Ricci), the notorious town harlot, beaten unconscious on the road near his farm. Lazarus proclaims to her: "God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of your wickedness." As the narrative unfolds, two very stark realities belt the viewer back into his seat. First, this film is filthy. Second, this film is about the gospel.

Most of the characters let foul language fly as casually as spit from the sides of their mouths. Animal sexuality is gratuitous and plagues the film. Rae wears it in her clothes, in her eyes, in everything she touches, and the film does not hide it.

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Yet, an implicit gospel message seems to flood the film, too. The cursing minister, Reverend R.L. (played with humanity by John Cothran), explains that salvation isn't about living perfectly: "There's sin in my heart," he confesses. "There's evil in the world."

But does the theme of terrible grace redeem this writhing story? We watch Rae and Lazarus both rise from the dead, at least a little, yet the film seems sheepish about redeeming its characters too much.

For example, in a touching scene where Lazarus and Rae share a meal, she spits out a slew of curse words. Lazarus says, "I know you got more in you than filth." But later that night, Lazarus spits out his own cursing into the microphone at a juke joint, and Rae bumps and grinds as she did pre-Lazarus and pre-redemption. Is this an honest picture of human inconstancy, or simply bad writing?

Yes, Lazarus and Rae recognize that they are broken and in need of redemption-and we, too, want it for them-but even their incomplete transformations into healthy persons seem too quick, too unbelievable. Yes, Christ can change the human heart in a flash, but our films must work harder at it.

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key

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