Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Timberlake both promised the audience they're not giving up their day jobs (or swapping careers). Christina Ricci's comments were more of the gosh, gee-whiz, glad-to-be-here variety, but she looked smashing in a form-fitting Audrey Hepburn-style gray sweater-dress. That's about twice as much clothing as she wears at any point in writer-director Craig Brewer's richly lurid Southern melodrama, "Black Snake Moan," which premiered here on Wednesday night before a packed, ecstatic house of 1,200 people in the Eccles Theatre.
Tickets for the "Black Snake Moan" premiere were commodities much sought after and bargained over this week at Sundance. It's difficult to calculate a film's merits while enveloped in celebrity endorphins and the clicking of a thousand camera phones, but let's just say the audience turned up determined to have a good time and was not disappointed. Given its cast, its title and its outrageous premise, Brewer's movie would have had little trouble garnering media attention with or without Sundance, but his breakthrough hit "Hustle & Flow" was launched here two years ago, and he seemed genuinely thrilled to be back.
Before we got to all the multiracial, good-natured Memphis joshing and gushing sincerity of the onstage Q&A session ("Justin, what challenges do you face in making the transition from singer to actor?"), we all sat attentively through a two-hour movie. It was pretty damn good! A memorable work of art? Well, I'm not so sure about that. It's more an ingenious and stylish entertainment, "Pulp Fiction" with a Southern accent and a heart of gold, driven by both love of the Lord and a certain affection for the other fella. Any movie in which Jackson plays a guy who keeps the town slut chained to his radiator, wearing nothing but a Rebel flag T-shirt and a pair of panties, has got a different tradition than "art" in view.
Like everybody else here, I couldn't help thinking about the instructive similarities -- and even more instructive differences -- between this film and the much-derided "Hounddog," Sundance's biggest stink bomb to date. Both pictures are drawing from the same deep well, trying to create something new from the mythic materials of the rural South: race, sex, sin, redemption and the blues. But "Hounddog" gets stuck in a depressive poker-faced realism (that never actually feels real), while "Black Snake Moan," through sheer pulpy outrageousness, through its reverence for both the sacred and the profane, is more powerful, more dangerous and, paradoxically, closer to real life.
Let's get back to those chains. Yes, it's true that Lazarus (Jackson), an embittered sharecropper and semiretired bluesman whose wife has run off with his brother, keeps Rae (Ricci), a girl known throughout the county for her generosity, chained up and padlocked in his house for much of the film. It isn't quite what you think. The key to melodrama is to invent outlandish situations and play them straight, giving the characters as much dignity and integrity as you can. Lazarus has the purest of intentions toward Rae -- better than any other guy in town, anyway -- and when he finally unlocks her, it's not clear how much she wants to leave.
As the cloudy-hearted Lazarus, Jackson has all the gravity and darkness you expect from him, but "Black Snake Moan" really belongs to Ricci. Rae moves through the movie like a weather system or a small but angry wild animal, spitting bile and invective wherever she goes. During and after the opening credits, she gives a trucker the finger and invites a street heckler to "kiss my Rebel coochie, faggot." She's playing a compulsive nymphomaniac and is nearly naked for most of the film, but the extraordinary thing about Ricci's performance is how non-exploitative and unprurient it is.
Some viewers will doubtless disagree, but I see no misogyny at the heart of "Black Snake Moan." It depicts a misogynist society, one that has beaten, shamed and victimized Rae all her life. But if that society has warped Rae's self-image, it has not vanquished her spirit. Both she and Lazarus may be trapped in dime-novel situations, separately and together, but they nonetheless are complicated, fleshed-out characters, marred by self-hatred and stiffened by pride.
Rae's fiancé, Ronnie (Timberlake, who gives a straightforward, unaffected performance), has gone off to the Army and presumably to Iraq. Rae loves him, but when it comes to other guys she literally can't help herself. She seems to be overcome by physical seizures of lust, desires she doesn't welcome but can't control.
Rae and Lazarus find each other at a point when both badly need someone. They're haunted by bad memories and bent on self-destruction. She assumes he just wants what every man wants from her; he believes God has made him the instrument of her salvation. They're both partly right and partly wrong, but let's not go any deeper than that. Except to point out that Jackson sings and plays a couple of convincing and truly evil blues numbers, including the title song, performed during a lightning storm as Ricci's Rae clings to his knee, wide-eyed.
I don't know whether "Black Snake Moan" is really an independent film, or even what that question means at this point. But it's a true rarity, a picture made for grown-ups that combines vibrant, color-drenched cinematography (by Amelia Vincent), grand narrative ambitions and a desire to thrill. There are a few undercooked characters (Timberlake's among them) and some bits of canned dirty-South color. Then again, this isn't meant to be a gravy-stained depiction of life below the Mason-Dixon exactly as it is today. Instead, it's a blast of energy, an exhilarating pop culture moment that combines (as Brewer says) a drive-in aesthetic and deep mythological roots. Hell, yeah.
To switch gears drastically, there are a couple of powerful and demanding documentaries here I'd be remiss not to mention. Timeliest of these is Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," a systematic and rigorous history of the Iraq war to date. An MIT Ph.D. and onetime Silicon Valley pioneer (he wrote the Internet start-up memoir "High Stakes, No Prisoners"), Ferguson has no previous experience as a filmmaker. But this piercing and unbiased account of all the stupidity, venality and small-mindedness that created our nation's latest foreign policy disaster combines hardheaded journalism and a tragic sensibility.
This is no left-wing screed; Ferguson himself says he was initially optimistic about America's foray into Iraq. His interviewees include former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, retired Gen. Jay Garner (the first coalition governor of Iraq) and the principal author of the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate, which tried to warn the Bush administration about the bottomless, nightmarish money pit that lay ahead. That was the document described by George W. Bush as "guesswork," even though (its authors say) the president had not read it or even seen it.
Ferguson synthesizes existing footage and his own interviews and original research -- he spent several weeks in Iraq, working under armed guard -- to create a portrait of an ideologically driven administration that conducted a war with disastrous incompetence, in which every bad decision was followed by another one. In dissolving the Iraqi military, firing most of the Baathist bureaucracy and allowing public buildings to be looted to the bare walls, Ferguson suggests, the Americans set themselves on a course toward inevitable humiliation. This is the film those stubborn Bush supporters in your family need to see.
Possibly even tougher to watch (though it's a close race) is Steven Okazaki's "White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," which will be shown on HBO in August and may also get a theatrical release. Of course we know about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 -- perhaps the defining event of the 20th century -- but this humbling, shocking film reminds us that we don't really know enough.
Okazaki interviews 14 survivors of the two bombings -- which killed about 210,000 people directly and led to the deaths of some 150,000 more from radiation-related illness -- along with four Americans involved in building and delivering the bombs. He also includes rarely seen footage of the two cities in the immediate aftermath of the devastation, shot first by Japanese news cameras and later by American occupation forces. No warning can really prepare you for these images of ashen corpses, maimed survivors and apocalyptic destruction, but in an age of renewed nuclear tension, there can be no question as to their relevance.
Okazaki, a Japanese-American whose father fought in the U.S. Army during World War II, ducks the question of whether the A-bomb attacks were moral or justifiable. As he put it in remarks after the screening I attended, that debate is now pointless, and often becomes a way of avoiding what actually happened, what it looked like and what those who lived through it can still tell us. (It's a disappearing generation; even the youngest of those who can remember the bombings clearly are now close to 70.)
As Okazaki demonstrates in the film's first scene, both of the nations involved in the catastrophe are in danger of forgetting it. While the A-bomb defined postwar Japan's identity in a certain sense, it also became a shameful subject surrounded by silence. (Survivors and their descendants face discrimination to this day.) When he stops eight random strangers on the street in Tokyo and asks them what historical event occurred on Aug. 6, 1945, none of them know.
During my last hours in Park City, I resisted sleep and crept into a late-night screening of "Once," a lovely musical romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that might be this festival's ultimate sleeper hit. A heartbroken Dublin street musician (played by Glen Hansard, of the Irish band the Frames), who busks for shoppers all day but sings his original folk-rock material at night, meets a classically trained Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová) who's now selling flowers.
They fit together wonderfully, both as musicians and as guy 'n' gal, but there remains a slightly mysterious distance between them. His songs -- neither character is named -- are all written to a missing girlfriend, and she has a 2-year-old daughter whose dad is still in the Czech Republic. They drift through Dublin, separately and together, in a mellow haze of music and infatuation. But Carney has measured the bitter and the sweet in precise proportions in "Once"; this is a romance for everyone who has ever fallen in love when you weren't really free to do so. A wistful and delightful little film, just the thing to send me on a jet plane homeward with an Irish song in my heart.