Maybe if you squeezed Judge Ryan Keefer's lemon 'til the juice runs down his leg he'd fall right out of bed too.
To save his soul, he must save hers.
In writer/director Craig Brewer's breakthrough film, also his last, Terence Howard's role in Hustle and Flow made scores of people root for a Memphis pimp because he had a dream. The "mold to gold" story won newfound admirers and even an Oscar for Best Song in the process. And with his follow-up film Black Snake Moan, do viewers see more of the same in high definition?
Facts of the Case
Rae (Christina Ricci, Buffalo 66) sleeps around in a small Tennessee town, but she manages to find a caring voice in Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, Alpha Dog), who has his own problems with anxiety, amplified by his joining the Army and going to Iraq. Rae's urge to lie with others intensifies after Ronnie leaves. Things are complicated when Rae goes out for a night of drinking and drugs, and winds up half-naked and beaten along the side of a road, where Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson, Snakes on a Plane) finds her. Lazarus has his own problems, as his wife left him for his brother, and as a guitar-playing bluesman, he can certainly voice those problems in his music. Lazarus decides to try and cure Rae of her ways by chaining her to the radiator. How's that working out for him?
On its basic premise, Black Snake Moan has the perfect concept: Christina Ricci is topless for copious amounts of time during the first act of the film, and she's kept under restraints to boot. Granted, she might be making out with Justin Timberlake in the opening scenes, but it's still not a large problem. Nakedness aside though, Rae's relationship with Ronnie is her anchor. Scenes between the two are important glimpses into the surprisingly stabilizing feeling that they give each other. For all their faults, they accept and embrace each others, despite the crippling feelings their own tendencies might have.
From a performance standpoint, everyone does well with what they're given. I almost didn't want to watch the film, as there was an appearance by Timberlake, but in his supporting role, he's actually not bad, I even (gasp!) liked him as Ronnie. Does that mean I lose all playback rights to my Slayer albums? On a quick sidebar for a second, in between Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, I've got to give Brewer a tremendous amount of credit for having a keen ear for music and incorporating it into his films, particularly this one. I like some of the obscure blues musicians, and while this might not be Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell or somebody else, it inspires you do dust off the old vinyl.
OK, back on topic. With Timberlake doing well, Ricci is very convincing as Rae. The interesting aspect of her personality are the times where she is aware of her "illness" and accepts it, and her path to redemption is a little bit better than when she's all chained up, but is still very good overall. However, the performance that has to be enjoyed is Jackson's. He plays most, if not all of the music on his own, including the guitar, and it gives a new dimension to his abilities. He is more than believable as an aging musician, and when he pulls out the guitar, it breathes life back into his stubborn belief that he might not be able to emerge from his present circumstance. When he's down, that impression is more than conveyed. For my money, it's his best performance that I've seen since Changing Lanes, and one of his most versatile. A more subtle personality transformation from quiet loner to a more outwardly friendly soul is worth keeping an eye out for too.
The 2.35:1 1080p transfer looks great, and appears to be presented with the MPEG-4 codec, though I could be mistaken. Black levels are rock solid and the Tennessee forests are lush and full of depth and detail, and the colors look vivid without any real bleed. The Dolby Digital-Plus surround soundtrack is quite a powerful one, as it should be, as the music is quite prevalent throughout the film, providing low end fidelity and dynamics, though the dialogue comes off as being a little more muted than most. Regardless, I didn't have a problem with it.
Bonus material wise, the extras are repeats from the standard definition version, starting with a commentary by Brewer. Sure, Brewer starts to talk about the production and introduces actors as they appear on screen, but then it starts to become somewhat candid in nature. Among the things I learned was that Rae's mother is Kim Richards, better known to some as the young girl from Escape to Witch Mountain, which was a definite "Holy Crap!" moment for me. He also provides quite a few tips for aspiring filmmakers, and discusses the reasons why, and his fondness for commentaries as a participant or an audience member. It's very informative and well worth the time. From there, five deleted/extended scenes lasting about 12 minutes in total follow. Most of the scenes are really good, showing off a Bible verse that Lazarus reads to Rae while her fever's breaking, along with how Rae and Ronnie first met. Some quality material here. Next is the proverbial half-hour look at the making of the film with the cast and crew members sharing their thoughts on the film and how they got to be cast members. There's a different take on it which I couldn't quite put a finger on, and it wasn't too shabby. A 15-minute look at the music that inspired the film, as composer Scott Bomar talks about working with Brewer and the musicians that contributed to the soundtrack. Jackson's preparation to learn the guitar is given some screen time as well, and the relation to the Memphis Stax era is even covered for a second. "The Black Snake Moan" is a 10-minute look at the keystone part of the film and the original song that was recorded, along with the "modernized" version. It strays into a piece on the editing for the film, but still remains a decent featurette. A stills gallery and the trailer complete things.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Getting back to the underlying message in Brewer's script, he tries to make the point that two people should accept each other, no matter how screwed up they may be. It's done in an understated quaint manner, but Brewer appears to be largely swept up in the nostalgia of the location and the music rather than effectively telling that story. In Hustle and Flow, there were two female characters for which the audience was well-invested in their fate. Rae's fate is comic at times so we shouldn't take it so seriously, and the film's emotional resonance suffers as a result.
Black Snake Moan features great music with some good performances. The story seems to stray from whatever central theme you might wish to take from it, but it's reminiscent of Hustle and Flow, the extras are much better than expected, and the technical qualities of the disc might make it the best-sounding non-comic book film out on the next generation formats. Definitely worth renting with an eye to buy.
The court does what it can to keep the black snake away from its door. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Craig Brewer
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