Watching the trailers for Black Snake Moan, I recall thinking it was going to drum up some outrageous controversy. I mean, the only thing we really knew about the film was that a big, scary black man chains up a half-dressed white girl in his home. Not exactly a wholesome image.
It’s a southern gothic parable, starring Samuel L. Jackson (Shaft) as Lazarus, a God-fearing man whose wife just left him for his own brother, and Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow) as Rae, a broken young woman wh…’s haunted by terrible sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Other key players include Justin Timberlake (Alpha Dog) as Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie, John Cothrane Jr. (Madagascar) as Lazarus’ reverend friend, and S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) as a potential love interest for Lazarus.
When Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie, leaves for the army, she breaks down and goes wild, getting stoned and free with her body at a townie party. As a result, she ends up beaten and unconscious on a dirt road in front of Lazarus’ remote house, and he takes her in to heal her up. When he heads in to town to get medicine, he also asks around about the girl. Realizing she’s a wayward soul, he returns determined to save her. His solution, as we know from the trailer, is to chain her up and teach her some self-respect.
Lazarus used to be big into playing the blues, and we see him take out his guitar to rail away at his emotions several times. Fact is, he’s not in much better shape than Rae, whom he’s trying to save. Although it looks really bad to have an old black man keeping a young white woman chained up at his place, these two need each other, and a friendship develops that just might be enough to save them both. The ultimate test comes when Ronnie comes back home after being discharged, and he learns his girl is shacked up with Lazarus.
By far, the best aspect of Black Snake Moan is the music, and the way it’s used in key points of the story. As with director Craig Brewer’s previous film, Hustle & Flow, music plays a big part in the production, but in this film it’s much more powerful. My favourite scene, and perhaps one of the finest scenes I’ve experienced in any film this year, revolves around the title song, a revamped version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s old tune. Rae asks Lazarus to play for her, so he pulls out his guitar, plugs in, and begins to play as a storm rages outside their home. Rae is fighting one of her episodes, with flashbacks of her abuse memories cutting in and out, while Lazarus wails at the sky, his guitar amp popping with interference from the lightning. Words can’t really describe the power of this scene, but I would recommend the film based on this sequence alone.
On the other hand, the film is racier than it has to be, which is a shame for it means some viewers, particularly those of a younger age, will miss out on a positive story. I’d argue that the film would have no less of an impact had it gone for a 14A rating instead of an R, especially since it never fulfills on the controversial promise of the trailer.
With fine performances from Jackson, Ricci and – surprisingly – Timberlake, and on the strength of its music, Black Snake Moan is a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
So, how’s the DVD?
Black Snake Moan is presented on one disc, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format. The transfer is solid, handling the film’s gritty material without issue. The colour palette here is southern gothic, with pale, dusty browns and earthy shadows, with a few flashes of more pure tones and spots of colour thrown in as accents. The overall look contributes to the film’s feeling of being in an almost alternate world, a fabled version of the south. Overall, the picture is detailed and consistent throughout.
The main menu is animated, and scored.
Audio comes by way of a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, which does an admirable job with the film’s dialogue, effects and the rough, bluesy score. My favourite scene, the Black Snake Moan, is also an aural highlight, with the storm raging around all channels and Sammy’s gritty vocals and guitar cutting through on the front channels. Since music is a secondary character in the film, I’m glad to hear it handled well.
Other audio options include Dolby Digital 2.0 in English and French, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Black Snake Moan offers a tight package of excellent bonus material, with plenty of interesting stuff for fans to sink their teeth into. Here’s the rundown:
- Audio commentary: by writer/director Craig Brewer, who really knows how to show viewers a good time. He’s well-spoken, has a voice that’s easy on the ears, and his obviously intimate relationship with the material goes a long way toward making this one of the best commentary tracks I’ve heard in quite a while.
- Conflicted – The Making of Black Snake Moan: hands down, this is one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes I’ve seen. Zero fluff, just great material on a well-made film.
- Rooted in the Blues: we’ve established that the film is big on its music, specifically the blues. Here’s a look at how it all came together, with Brewer and his good pal Scott Bomar, who wrote the music, and the talented group of musicians they assembled to do it right.
- The Black Snake Moan: this is a shorter featurette all about the title song, and how the pivotal scene came together. With input from musicians, Brewer and editor Billy Fox, this is a great piece.
- Deleted Scenes: five in all, and surprisingly, they’re not a bunch of throwaway stuff that never should have been shot in the first place. Granted, they were cut for good reason, but it’s still interesting to see, with perhaps the most intriguing scene being an outdoor conversation between Lazarus and the reverend, when the reverend reveals that Lazarus’ wife is pregnant with her new man.
Black Snake Moan, while not living up to the controversial feel of its trailer, is a well-made film with a good story and a fantastic use of music. If you’re a fan, or think you will be, don’t hesitate to pick up this disc, as the audio, video and special features are all top shelf.
Special Features List
- Audio commentary
- Deleted Scenes
- Conflicted – The Making of Black Snake Moan
- Rooted in the Blues
- The “Black Snake Moan”