Upon seeing this hard-edged yet honest picture, Judge Dennis Prince knows he'd never have the right to sing the blues.
"I ain't gonn' be moved on this. Right or wrong, you gonn' mind me. Like Jesus Christ said, 'Imma suffa' you. Imma suffa' you!' Get yo ass back in my house!"
Sure, it has a near-nude woman chained to a surly black man's radiator, but it has heart, too. If you don't believe it, take a look for yourself.
Facts of the Case
When his wife runs off with his own brother, one-time bluesman Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson, Snakes on a Plane) feels the bottom drop out of his world. Just as he grapples with his own swirling emotions, he finds Rae (Christina Ricci, Sleepy Hollow) beaten and unconscious on the roadside. He retrieves the girl and takes her into his home to nurse her fever, hacking cough, and…something else. A bit of checking into the girl's situation reveals she's got a "sickness" such that she's eager to lay down for any man—or kneel or squat or bend over or whatever it might be that would suit a fellow. Her sexual compulsion has gotten out of hand now that her beau, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, Alpha Dog) has shipped out for combat duty overseas. But just as Lazarus' heart is at its heaviest, he recognizes that it is God's plan that he tend to Rae and cure her of her wickedness, come what may. What he doesn't expect is how God is likewise using Rae to cure Lazarus of what ails him, as well.
"It's not what you think it is" might be the best statement to describe Black Snake Moan. While it has been said that the film's marketing campaign—the gritty and grimy depiction of Rae bound by a chain at the hands of the overpowering Lazarus—has served as a exploitative gimmick to tease and tempt curious moviegoers, I say this is exactly the sort of move reminiscent of the late '60s or early '70s grindhouse cinema. It works, plain and simple. And even though it is something of a bait and switch tactic, it succeeds in drawing in an audience who otherwise might have likely dismissed the notion of the raw human drama that ultimately flickers on the screen. What does transpire, then, is a genuine tale of loss, loneliness, and a wrenching longing for personal redemption. The seemingly sleazy setting is merely a stage of a different sort, never tidied up or softened to improve the picture's accessibility but, rather, delivered as it is—warts and all—to give us an experience that is unsettling in its stark emotional verity.
Don't think you won't get the goods promised by the picture's ad campaign, though. If you're looking to gawk at Christina Ricci in the nude, you won't be disappointed; there's plenty of that in the opening act. But, as the story progresses and we learn of her "sickness," we look at her character much differently, not as a peep show treat but, instead, as a damaged soul in need of emotional attention and affirmation. Her performance is excellent and she gives into the role completely. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson is a talent to be reckoned with here, delivering an amazingly believable characterization. Add to this the surprise of his musical performances, playing guitar while drawling out bluesy lyrics and he emerges as the complete package. Present-day pop star, Justin Timberlake, does well enough in the role of Ronnie although this serves as yet another performance from him that never attempts to truly break away from his usual pouting persona. He's not bad here but he does seem to have some acting ability somewhere within himself and it's time he took on a riskier assignment.
Free of all the slick Hollywood production trappings that usually destroy the air of legitimacy for films of this sort, Black Snake Moan looks low budget in a most satisfying way. There's excellent cinematography to be found here including emotive low angle setups, uncomfortably tight close-ups, and sometimes-frantic tracking shots but it's all managed in a way that helps pull us into the setting rather than dazzle us from afar. This and the exquisitely understated production design work to unequivocally situate the viewer smack dab in the middle of the underdeveloped Tennessee locale. Again, it makes for an entirely different experience than you might have been expecting but it turns the tables on you in a most unusual yet fulfilling way.
On Blu-ray disc, this 1080p/AVC encoded transfer looks excellent. The color benefits most from the high definition treatment, the somewhat overexposed exteriors glaring at us. The darkly downtrodden interiors are also well rendered with plenty of visible shadow detail thanks to well managed black levels and contrast. Add the excellent detail throughout, with nary an instance of compression artifacting, and it makes for a top tier presentation. The audio isn't as well cared for as the emerging format can muster but it's good nonetheless, coming via a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Make no mistake, this is a full-bodied track that offers excellent dialog coherence with well balanced ambient effects and a pitch perfect delivery of the awesome blues soundtrack. That said, though, it's slightly disappointing when you imagine what could have been delivered via an uncompressed PCM or DTS-MA mix. Extras here are the same as you'll find on the HD DVD and standard DVD releases. The audio commentary by writer/director Craig Brewer is not to be missed since he quickly opens up to bear all manner of personal insights about the story and the making of this very unique picture. Deleted scenes, presented in high definition, offer some additional interaction between Lazarus and Rae, a discussion between Lazarus and Angela, and an intriguing scene between Rae and Ronnie that probably should not have been cut from the final edit. Featurettes follow including a look at the production itself (Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan) and a couple of satisfying excursions into the impeccable blues elements of the picture (The Black Snake Moan and Rooted in the Blues).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Frankly, the marketing of this film was flawed and likely cost it the audience it deserved. Those enticed to enjoy a salacious serving of nekkid' wimmin in chains will be disappointed to find there's some real drama going on here. Those who leap out to admonish this as exploitative trash of the worst kind will miss an excellent tale that just happens to be told in an unflinching manner. Hopefully, though, home video releases like this will help the film gain its due accolades and perhaps you'll give it a look, too.
No, Black Snake Moan is not for all tastes and it might likely offend some and confuse others. However, if you open yourself to its reality and do a bit of thinking along the way, you'll discover this to be an excellent film that just happens to be packaged in a greasy brown bag. See it!
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