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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Black Snake Moan (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Black Snake Moan (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Paramount // R // June 26, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 24, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Half throwback to '70s exploitation and half Southern-fried fable, Black Snake Moan is writer/director Craig Brewer's second film about the music of his home state of Tennessee. As much as the posters and TV spots pushed Christina Ricci half-naked and chained to a radiator while Samuel L. Jackson bellows about how he's going to cure her of her wicked ways, that's all over and done halfway through the movie. It's really about two remarkably intense characters, each with a gaping hole in their lives.

Rae (Christina Ricci) has the sickness. Cursed with a voracious sexual appetite, she's been cheating on her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) every weekend he heads out to train with the guard. When it comes time for Ronnie to ship off to Iraq, it's not even a couple of hours until Rae starts plowing her way through every man in town. In a drunken stupor, she starts fooling around with the wrong guy and is mercilessly beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.

Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) stumbles upon her the following morning. No stranger to the bottle himself, Laz is an passionless, God-fearing old man who long ago left his days as a fiery Blues musician behind to tend to a small patch of farmland. His wife feels like she's throwing her life away in their empty marriage and has taken up with Laz' brother. The betrayal stings enough for Laz to nearly carve up his brother with a shattered beer bottle and to plow over his wife's rose garden with his rickety old tractor.

Lazarus knows a black man in the Deep South can't ring up the doctor about a half-naked, savagely beaten white girl. He tends to her himself, and as Laz innocently asks around and finds out about Rae's reputation as the town jizz jar, he takes it upon himself to help her out. Laz lugs some heavy duty chains out of the shed and chains her to the radiator. He leaves Rae enough slack to make her way to the bathroom and the kitchen, but she's not going anywhere, and there's no one in earshot to drown Laz out as he reads from the Bible and aims to cure the sex-crazed doormat.

On one hand, yes, Black Snake Moan is unabashedly an exploitation flick. Rae is topless or damned close for half the movie, screwing anyone who doesn't kick her aside with an almost primal, carnal fury. Half naked and chained to a radiator, Rae twists the chains around her emaciated body as she sleeps like some sort of S&M comfort blanket. Rae's shown strutting around her backwater town against a title sequence that's about as authentic to '70s exploitation as Tarantino's Death Proof, and a bar fight with a broken beer bottle shoved against the face of Laz's brother, the savage beating Rae takes, and an attempted rape leave those sorts of comparisons that much easier to make.

The difference is that exploitation flicks prop up the characters as an excuse to throw in just enough sex and violence to fill a few dozen sticky seats. Black Snake Moan likes Rae and Lazarus. It respects them. I wouldn't call it a character study, exactly -- the two of them are too exaggerated for that -- but there's a sincerity to Laz and Rae. A soul. The sense that these may be set pieces in some sort of over-the-top fable, worlds removed from anything I've ever experienced, but everyone can relate to loss and to loneliness. Cariactures or not, we still want them to find what they're looking for, even if they don't know that they're looking for anything at all.

It helps that these two characters are played by such tremendous actors; it's hard to watch Black Snake Moan and picture much of anyone else in these roles. Samuel L. Jackson is note-perfect as the God-fearing bluesman, able to be juggle a combustible rage with the tender but stern surrogate father role. Christina Ricci manages to be indescribably sultry and sexy but deeply vulnerable. Beneath that foul-mouthed facade is a sweetness that desperately wants to bubble to the surface, and that's a nearly impossible balance to strike. Most movies struggle to have overtly sexual women seem especially endearing, but Ricci's talented enough in this fearless performance to pull it off, and her character's gradual transformation doesn't ever seem cloying or contrived. Justin Timberlake is the only weak link in the cast. I was impressed with his turn in Alpha Dog, but he's out of his depth here, and despite giving it his all, Timberlake is hopelessly outclassed by the exceptionally intense performances by his co-stars.

There's not a genre of music that would better fit this fable of platonic love and redemption than the Blues. Craig Brewer describes the Blues as exorcism music -- dealing with pain by releasing it, sharing it, and embracing it -- and that's exactly what Black Snake Moan does. It's not about sunny Hollywood endings. You can either succumb to your pain or acknowledge that life is a bitch of a road and navigate it the best you can. The soundtrack is incredible, and Jackson's achingly impassioned vocals in Lazarus' solo electric performance of "The Black Snake Moan" crackles in the most resonant scene in an already emotionally powerful movie. Black Snake Moan also has a wit that sparkles throughout the film, embracing the absurdity of a half-naked white woman chained to a radiator and ekeing out humor from it without watering down the emotion.

I loved Black Snake Moan. It's grungy and vulgar. It's provocative and witty. It's not exactly subtle but is remarkably sincere. This is an endlessly engaging movie with a pair of outstanding lead performances and a phenomenal soundtrack. Very highly recommended.

Video: Presented at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using the AVC codec, Black Snake Moan is one of Paramount's strongest releases to date. The image is crisply defined and brimming with fine object detail, boasting a palette of warm, natural hues and rock solid contrast. There's a slight trace of film grain -- just enough to lend Black Snake Moan a faint and appropriately gritty texture -- and as expected from a movie fresh out of theaters, there's no visible wear or speckling at all. Dangerously close to perfection.

Audio: Black Snake Moan sports a solid Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack. Plucked acoustic guitar strings and the distorted fuzz of electric guitars are reinforced in the rears, and the surround channels are otherwise reserved primarily for texture, such as the crunch of asphalt under tires. A handful of scenes take care to more actively use all of the channels on-hand, most memorably during the tumultous storm during Lazarus' impassioned performance of "The Black Snake Moan" and the scattered beeping of a digital watch during one of Rae's fever dreams. Directionality is largely left to the front speakers as Rae's chain rattles, trucks and tractors lurch from one speaker to the next, and balls careen across a pool table. The film's dialogue generally comes through well, although the Southern drawls can be tough to make out every once in a while, and this is from someone born and raised in the boondocks of South Carolina. Still, that's a minor gripe, and most of Black Snake Moan sounds great.

A 5.1 French dub has also been included along with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras: This high definition release of Black Snake Moan sports the same set of extras as the DVD. Its theatrical trailer and deleted scenes have gotten an upgrade to HD, and the three featurettes are presented in standard definition and pillarboxed.

The best of the disc's extras is a set of five deleted scenes that run right at twelve minutes in total. Unlike the deleted scenes I'm used to that don't amount to much more than a few additional lines of dialogue a piece, these are actual scenes, and all but the last of them are given several minutes to breathe. The highlight, without question, is a black-and-white flashback showing how Rae and Ronnie first grew close. Set in the bathroom at a high school kegger, it's sweet, tender, and disarmingly funny. Other scenes include Lazarus reading a passage to Rae as he tries to break her fever in an ice-filled bathtub and a couple of additional conversations Laz has with Reverend R. L. and Angie. This footage is presented in high definition but isn't nearly as polished as the movie proper.

The deleted scenes are accompanied by optional audio commentary by writer/director Craig Brewer. It's more insightful than the commentaries that usually follow this sort of footage since their length allows Brewer to say more than he liked a particular scene but had to pull it for pacing. Brewer touches on one scene being cut because allowing for ambiguity was a better fit for his views on faith, incorporating some of the intimacy from his married life into the flashback with Ronnie, and how all of his films are ultimately about the old and young coming together with equal respect.

The twelve and a half minute featurette "Rooted in the Blues" focuses on the music, including the way Brewer views his films as musicals and how Black Snake Moan is the second of five films he plans to make about the music of his home state. The featurette spends a great deal of time following the recording of the Blues numbers used throughout the movie as well as the seasoned musicians behind them, and it also takes a look at the training Samuel L. Jackson underwent to make his guitar playing look authentic.

"The Black Snake Moan" devotes nine minutes to the filming of the movie's most memorable sequence: Laz belting out the film's powerful title track during a violent thunderstorm. Everything from the recording of the demo, the more polished studio recording, the cinematography of the sequence, and the operatic editing is covered in detail.

The last and lengthiest of the three featurettes is "Conflicted: The Making of Black Snake Moan". This half-hour making-of piece leans away from the promotional clips that litter most DVDs and HD DVDs, instead sincerely approaching how Black Snake Moan came together. Craig Brewer and his long-time producer discuss how the script was written while Hustle and Flow was being tirelessly shopped around and shrugged off at every turn, assembling a cast that includes the director's childhood crush Kim Richards of Witch Mountain fame, the string of unusual events that destined Sam Jackson to play a weathered bluesman, and how the radiator to which Rae is chained represents faith. Most of the key cast and crew are given a chance to contribute.

Craig Brewer turns up again with an audio commentary for the film. His enthusiasm is infectious, taking particular glee in pointing out all of the elements drawn from his personal life and his days in the steamy South. Among the highlights are Brewer noting the inspiration he drew from Westerns, some of the unusual sounds scattered throughout the film, such a washboard piped through a wah pedal, and the unconventional way he paired live vocals with pre-recorded music during filming. There aren't too many commentaries that offer detailed technical notes but can settle into how to keep dogs from humping each other on-screen or how sipping moonshine puts you in a different kind of drunken stupor. Brewer's comments aren't as tightly focused as the other extras on this disc, and this commentary isn't quite as compelling after plowing through the rest of the bells and whistles. Still, he's up to the challenge of carrying a two hour commentary by his lonesome, and it's worth a listen.

Rounding out the extras are a 1.78:1 high definition trailer for the film and a photo gallery with thirty or so production stills and behind the scenes shots.

Conclusion: One of my favorite movies of 2007, this Blues-tinged slice of Southern gothic boasts two tremendous lead performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci as well as a deep and abiding love for this genre of music. Highly Recommended.

Other Reviews: DVD Talk also has reviews of Black Snake Moan on Blu-ray and standard definition DVD as well as write-ups from the film's original theatrical release.
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