Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan (2006)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes

I was truly taken by surprise by Craig Brewer's darkly comic and utterly brilliant film "Black Snake Moan." Because of a marketing campaign that turned me off, I simply shrugged this one off as controversial, independent self-indulgence tossed out to upset the conservatives out there. Then I saw the movie poster, which pushed my curiosity further away, as it appeared to be some sort of exploitation piece and looked like the cover of a dime store pulp novel. Later, I caught snippets of the trailer, I also read something about nymphomania and Sam Jackson chaining up Christina Ricci, I didn't really know what to expect. Don't get me wrong, I love exploitation flicks, also. Let me just say, this film defied my expectations and will defy yours, also. The type of audience that fell for the hook of this film's misleading campaign is just the type that could get the most out of this film. As for me, it is simply one of the best movies I have seen in the last few years and one that I highly recommend. It's also the kind of movie you go out and buy the soundtrack to play in your car, in heavy rotation. And HD-DVD is the perfect format for this Southern-fried tale of love, loss, redemption and the blues.

From its opening shot, we hear the sounds of locusts in the surround speakers and bottleneck guitar. Two characters, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) and Rae (Christina Ricci) are having a sweaty bump and grind session before he takes off for National Guard duty in some far off land. The film never says Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam; it seems to live in a world all its own, a timeless world where the past meets the present. It could be the early sixties, but we get an internet reference, meet a crack dealer, and most of the background seems modern. In other words, a place called modern day Tennessee. Let's take note that this excellent director not only has the eye to catch the surreal beauty that is the South but has an ear to match, the dialogue is always fresh and wonderful to listen to. It's like poetry from the gutter. As our two lovers separate we perceive this is truly devastating to Rae, who writhes on the grass in psychological agony as the sound of summer insects swirl around the room. From here we cut to her in a cheap hotel having another encounter with her drug dealer, but this time it's different. We see pain in her face and detect emptiness in her manner, she is using this sexual encounter as some kind of drug. When the encounter turns playfully aggressive she goes through some kind of convulsion; it is here that the film shows homage to another great feature that I have always loved, the character of Mike Waters, male hustler, played by River Phoenix in "My Own Private Idaho" who would be sent into narcoleptic stupors whenever anything reminded him of his troubled past. She gets dropped off on a rocky road with a shrug of her shoulders and a half-felt goodbye, and the camera follows her as she walks in tight jean shorts smoking a cigarette as the opening credits flash on the screen, cheap and seventies yellow type.

We also meet a man named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a man with problems all his own. His marriage has slipped between his fingers, and as much as he wants to make things work, his wife has decided to become romantic with his brother. He seems to handle it pretty well, until a nasty bar scuffle with his sibling that turns violent. Two tortured souls, getting through the night by any means necessary, strong drink, drugs, empty sex, all to a soundtrack better listened to than read about. As fate would have it, Lazarus appears to have a creative outlet for his pain, in the form of a guitar. He sings the blues, and I am impressed with Jackson's performances. Bruce Willis ("The Curse of Bruno") should take a few pointers!

After popping several mysterious pills at a party, Rae ends up getting violently attacked by a past acquaintance who offers her a ride home and tries to take advantage of her, and then kicked out of a monster truck unconscious, only to be discovered by Lazarus the next morning. To say the least, he is in a panic, and in her drug addled state, she is almost impossible to tend to, as she keeps trying to escape and appears to be going through some pretty severe withdrawal symptoms, having flashbacks of sexual abuse and traumatic coughing fits. He goes into town to get her some medicine for her cough, and ends up at the pharmacy being helped by a woman who is obviously entranced by him, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson). The developing romance between these two is one of the sweetest and most real seeming love stories of recent years. Along this way, he does some research on Rae's past and discovers the full horrors of her rabid nymphomania. He ends up chaining her to a radiator to protect her from herself, an act of exorcism to say the least. He is a very moral man, a man with a code, a way of life that is the blues. I swear, when she comes to and finds out she is in chains, I have never laughed so hard at a movie, Jackson has decided to help this girl be it hell or high water, and the exchanges are the kind that make audiences stand up and cheer. I won't ruin any more of the film from here, but let's just say this is the kind of film we can all relate to, because we all have problems. The true essence of the film is the healing power of music, and it is one electric, jarring, ecstatic masterpiece. This movie IS the blues, and I am looking forward to seeing what this talented young director has in store for us next, (also being a big fan of "Hustle And Flow"). I wouldn't be surprised if Jackson isn't up for some awards, let alone Ricci, who gives the performance of her career. We will all find something different to love (and for some to hate) about this movie. But for me, it doesn't get any better than this.

As for the transfer, it truly sparkles. One of the best elements of this film is the color; it is truly bursting with color, and all of them come across beautifully. The background is always filled with much to look at, and with a movie like this it's all in the details. A bandana used to stop bleeding as it plays the guitar, sweat glistening in the bright lights of a blues club, the wonderful trees that adorn the roads of the southern part of the U.S., the rocks on the ground, all of the imperfections that surround us, lightening flashing in the sky. I must say, the only way to experience this movie is on HD-DVD, the dark scenes come across perfectly, and this is the type of disc that really brings out the best in any home theater system. I have absolutely no complaints. I also love the menu display. The selector icons are chains. I really appreciate the way that HD DVDs go the extra creative mile in their menu displays.

In the sound department we have a Dolby Digital Plus track that is very heavy and active in the surrounds, especially where the music is concerned. The bass is very aggressive and used quite frequently. And like I said, being a fan of music, this is a very impressive sound mix. I am disappointed we didn't get a Dolby True HD option, though; if any movie deserves it this one does, to say the least. Still, the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus track is more than sufficient. This is a very music-oriented movie, so it is very important to have a wide sound field and decent LFE response, which the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus track has in spades. You will love the music in this film, it is the driving force and theme.

In the special features department, we have an insightful and informative commentary by director/writer Craig Brewer. There is also a making-of documentary called 'Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan'. In this featurette, we see interviews with director Craig Brewer, producer John Singleton (director of "Boyz n the Hood") and other members of the crew explaining their passion for making the movie. They also explained that Craig Brewer gets much respect from the production team for taking on such a sexually and emotionally charged theme in the beginning of his career.

'Rooted in the Blues' is an excellent feature all about mixing the movie's soundtrack in Memphis with many local musicians who are also friends of Craig Brewer's. You can see that he has serious passion not just for the music in his movie, but also for music in general. It's amazing to see the musicians having a great time jamming and drinking beer, all working together on a project they love. There's also a wealth of information about the history of Memphis in movie scoring and Ardent Studios, (where they scored the film) and all of the legendary Blues masters who recorded there in the past, many of whom helped work on this very movie. We also see Samuel L. Jackson in the recording studio. This is a very cool feature for music lovers.

Another feature on the disc is a very informative featurette called 'The Black Snake Moan' about the history of the song "Black Snake Moan" by Blind Lemon Jefferson who was always singing songs about being blind and about fear and the darkness of the soul. This feature also gets into the more technical aspects of the editing of the picture and because the group of people who worked on this movie are so interesting and intelligent, this feature too is worthy of watching.

Now to the most exciting portion of the special features which are the five deleted scenes, all in high definition, each with optional director's commentary. They all look and sound just as good as the movie itself, which is a very cool addition to the film, but none of the deleted scenes actually add anything to the movie, which was superbly edited. I must highly commend Paramount for their excellent attention in the special features department as far as adding high definition content. So far in my opinion Paramount are leaders in including HD content on Bonus features in their releases and I hope this is a trend that continues in the future. Good job Paramount. There is also a photo gallery and a theatrical trailer.

Craig Brewer states that he is trying to make films that Rufus Thomas and Elvis Presley would have "got a big old kick out of seeing"; And I, for one, think he has succeeded in doing so. I highly recommend this HD release.