You've got to admit that Samuel L. Jackson seldom plays it safe. At a time in his career when he could just coast along on clichéd roles, within a year or so of each other he's played a police detective, a voice of an Afro Samurai, a supporting role as a hotel manager, a broken-down ex-prizefighter, and in "Black Snake Moan" a grizzled old jazz musician and farmer.
Add to Jackson, who is always worth watching, the curvacious Christina Ricci, who is also good; plus writer and director Craig Brewer, who had impressed everyone with his previous film, "Hustle and Flow"; plus producer (and director) John Singleton ("Boyz n the Hood"), who always impresses; plus a surprise turn by pop singer Justin Timberlake; and you get...well...not a great movie but definitely a weird one.
My colleague Dean Winkelspecht liked the film more than I did, so you might want to read his review of the Blu-ray edition if you haven't already. I found "Black Snake Moan" a strange, daring, bodacious concoction from a major studio, a film with a paper-thin plot line, bizarre, troubled characters, and an abundance of sensationalism, including sex, nudity, profanity, and violence. Yet, I have to admit there is something more compelling about the film than merely its appeal to the vulgar; there is a raw vitality that is hard to resist. It's kind of like Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" meets Tennessee Williams's "Baby Doll" done up for the twenty-first century. Sorta fun, actually, if you're not expecting anything too serious.
The story derives from the old, 1927 blues song "Black Snake Moan" by Blind Lemon Jefferson, and from a definition of the blues proposed by old-time bluesman Son House: "Two people supposed to be in love when one or the other deceives the other through their love."
Basically, the movie is an old-fashioned morality play, for all its lurid details. It's about love and redemption and the ability of people to change their ways for the better. It's even about the need for family and for strong personal relationships and mutual understanding. But mostly it's about Ms. Ricci in and out of her underwear.
The main characters are two very unhappy people living in the rural South; the movie suggests somewhere in Tennessee (where the filmmakers shot it on location). Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a former blues guitarist living on a small farm, a man whose wife has just left him for his brother. That'll always get you down. You'll recall that the Bible describes two different people named Lazarus, one of them in the parable of the rich man and the beggar (Luke 16:19-31) and the other more famous fellow whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:1-44). I suspect the filmmakers mean for us to think of Lazarus rising from the dead here, because our own Lazarus begins the movie in a fit of depression and ends up redeemed.
Christina Ricci plays Rae, a beautiful young sexpot in a constant state of heat, whose boyfriend (played by Justin Timberlake) has just left for the army. Being alone for a good four hours, she panics and begins partying with every male in the state. It's no surprise she winds up raped, beaten, and left by the side of the road.
And the side of the road just happens to be in front of Lazarus's farm, where he finds her and takes her in. Once he understands her condition, he determines to save her from herself, cure not only her cuts and bruises but her nymphomania as well. He figures she's possessed by demons, and to help her out, he chains her to a radiator.
If this sounds over-the-top, it is. The only way to appreciate the film is to take it humorously. The plot turns into a battle of wills and a literal tug-of-war between two set minds. He means to salvage her despite herself, and she does her best to seduce him.
Ah, but Samuel L. Jackson is above such seductions. He might be despondent, but he's as morally straight as the day is long. In the process of saving her everlasting soul, he manages to recover his own dignity and make up for his own past sins. By the time the movie's over, "Black Snake Moan" turns so sweet and appealing that it's really hard to dislike.
Yeah, it's a one-note film that last too long for its slender premise, but the partnership of Jackson's determination and Ricci's energy carries the day, along with some really nice blues and gospel singing. It's an oddball picture, to be sure, but it's curiously engaging.
First, the good news: The Paramount video engineers present the 1080 transfer in a ratio very close to its original 2.35:1 dimensions, and they make sure the colors remain bright and vivid. Now, the bad: The photography is often glossy and sometimes glassy, conditions undoubtedly inherent to the original print. More good: Close-ups are excellent. More bad: Darker areas of the screen tend slightly to lose detail, the black levels are so intense. Moreover, I spotted several instances of moiré effects, as in car grilles, that I wouldn't have expected to see in a high-definition picture.
The engineers encoded the film in MPEG4-AVC. My colleague Dean Winkelspecht in his review of the Blu-ray edition (which Paramount also encoded in MPEG4) loved the Blu-ray video quality, which should be identical to the HD DVD's. As I say, maybe it's just me, but Paramount's "The Untouchables," which I watched the day before, was exemplary in its video output, among the best I've ever seen. Go figure. Besides, I am undoubtedly guilty of making a mountain of a molehill; the video is quite fine.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio probably reproduces the movie's soundtrack exactly as its makers intended, but that doesn't mean I liked it all that well. The music tended to overpower the dialogue, forcing me to turn down the volume at times and then turn it back up again to hear what was going on. In a theater, I'd have had to wear earplugs. There is a good deal of punch to the sonics, particularly the music, but the dialogue is fairly soft and rounded off. What's more, there isn't much rear-channel activity going on, except in the case of ambient musical bloom. Since the music is best part of the show, however, (well, OK, Ms. Ricci ain't bad, either), the sound is at its best in the musical department.
There's a good collection of extras involved on the disc. Most important is a commentary by writer/director Craig Brewer, who gives us a pretty good description of the filmmaking process while telling us why he made the picture in the first place. After that are three featurettes: "Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan," a behind-the-scenes affair, twenty-seven minutes; "Rooted in the Blues," all about the music, twelve minutes; and "The Black Snake Moan," about the Blind Lemon Jefferson song used for the title. Then, there are five deleted scenes in high definition, totaling about twelve minutes, with optional director commentary; and, finally, a photo gallery.
Things conclude with sixteen scene selections but no chapter insert; a 1.85:1 ratio theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Black Snake Moan" is not the kind of film that will win many--or any--awards; nor did it fare well at the box office. Maybe it will recoup its losses in the video market, who knows. But come on, any movie that gets Samuel L. Jackson to sing the blues and gets Christina Ricci naked and chained to a radiator can't be all bad. I mean, you've got to admire it for its gutsy spirit alone.