Addiction and recovery are fertile grounds for good storytelling. They create strong interpersonal tension and layers of conflict that we can immediately relate to. We love seeing people get better because we want to believe that the same thing can happen for us. Life is hard, and the struggle is real. Movies are for everyone, though, and many tend to take safe and reductive approaches to rehabilitation. They skip the ugly stuff and present the kind of moral dichotomy you see in Barbie dolls: the addict will do the right thing because it’s right, and the sooner they realize it, the sooner America will be great again. Luckily, we get the odd filmmaker willing to approach difficult subjects sympathetically. They play with weakness and vulnerability without taking away agency and consequence. Craig Brewer’s 2006 film Black Snake Moan feels like a grindhouse trash-fest at first, a stylistic exercise that tries too hard for its own good. But digging deeper into the symbolism at work allows us to approach the film’s emotional extremes with some much-needed brutal honesty. In this case, that approach involves chaining a gorgeous blonde to the living room furniture.
No one in Tennessee plays the blues like Lazarus Redd (Samuel L. Jackson). No one sang, drank, or lived as hard as he did at his peak. He gave all that up for love, but twenty years and one cheating wife later, he’s wishing he hadn’t. His beloved Rose (Adriane Lenox) just took off with his brother Deke (Leonard L. Thomas) and left him with nothing but his guitar and a bad hangover. Meanwhile, bruised beauty and sex addict Rae Doole (Christina Ricci) is also resorting to inappropriate coping strategies. It’s only a few minutes after her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leaves town that she starts feeling that anxious, gnawing urge to live up to her considerable reputation. The next morning, Lazarus finds her pantsless and unconscious in the mud outside his house and begins cleaning her cuts and patching her bruises. Once he matches name to face, however, he resolves to cure what’s really ailing her. He sees a kindred spirit, someone fighting the same demons that have haunted him for years. He sees the same love that stoked the fire within him and the same pain that smothered it to death. This is more than A Girl in Trouble. This is both of their souls on the line.
But soon, Rae makes the chain her own. There’s a beautiful moment early on where she fights off nightmares and flashbacks of her childhood abuse by wrapping it tightly around her body. Rae needs security; she needs to be tethered to something real and present so that she doesn’t slide backward. It’s not long before she starts taking a bizarre kind of solace in the chain, a willful probation from real life that gives her the space to process her anxiety. She realizes that, in a way, Lazarus has given her a gift: no one will take her away, and she won’t ever be lost or alone. It gives her a safe space free of temptation (barring a minor backslide with young Neimus K. Williams as Lincoln). It gives her the opportunity to discuss love and faith with Lazarus’ preacher friend R.L. (John Cothran, Jr.) without feeling judged by the churchgoing faithful in town. It even gives her the chance to help make dinner for a group of new friends. This isn’t domestication, mind you. This is inclusion. This is safety and familiarity. The only reason R.L. isn’t flipping the dinner table and calling the cops is because he sees how much she needs all this. This is an addict going cold turkey, a smoker fighting nicotine fits.