Black Snake Moan (2006)

The epitome of “difficult to describe” and “impossible to classify,” this story has a lot going on. The initial marketing—especially the incongruous movie poster—was ticket bait for those looking for frenetically salacious and lewd content; anyone with a sense of decency avoided it in disgust.

Quality acting helps ground potentially off-the-rails characters as the story deliberately shows them at their worst to establish the misunderstood subversive behaviors, for which they are publicly ostracized. A solider with recurring panic attacks returns home to discover his girlfriend is missing. Meanwhile, she gets dumped out of a pickup truck, battered and in her underwear, along the side of the road. A hot-headed recluse drags her to his home where she wakes up chained to the radiator. Madness, right? That’s the point. Though everyone seems crazy at the outset, the beauty of this story is the bonds they forge along their journey toward healing despite complex struggles.

Normally, I wouldn’t give nearly so much of the plot away but in this case it’s the only way to justify seeing past such a depraved opening. As it turns out, the young woman was abused as a child; as with most victims, she feels a combination of guilt and confusion over her body’s response. So when she grows up and develops romantic feelings—even for guy who genuinely cares about her—she’s confused about how to give and receive affection, thus trapped in a vicious cycle of promiscuity. The antisocial loner, who initially holds her prisoner for her own safety, turns out to be a religious Blues musician who struggles with alcohol abuse following a contentious divorce. Heartbreak has left him closed off to the world.

As they compare the vices that serve to distract them from haunting memories, the two strike up a friendship that functions more like a father showing his wayward daughter some tough love, which includes having the local preacher over for lunch to hear his two cents:

“Ima tell you something and it’s just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about Heaven too much, like it’s some kind of all-you-eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There’s sinning in my heart, there’s evil in the world. But when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness; not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live, or no more good to do, but today, right now… what’s your Heaven?”

Small Town Crime (2017)

In the vein of an old Western, this gritty mystery doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a treat to see such complex characters in a plot that doesn’t meander down gratuitous rabbit trails. Too many filmmakers think the more graphic details they include the more intense the plot will be. On the contrary: certain scenes are intense but it’s easy to lose sight of the larger story when you can’t see the forest for the trees. When an ex-cop, who’s wrestling with inner demons, stumbles upon a way to potentially redeem himself, you want to see the transformation rather than indulge the director’s latent fantasies. Especially, when he needs to figure out how to save everyone he put in danger in the first place. Actions have consequences but they don’t have to be bad; it all depends on how much you’re willing to risk to put things right.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

In no way hyperbole, the title is as provocative and contentious as its titular character, who happens to be a real person. It’s an severely honest rendering of a life turned upside down—first by conversion from a life of unrestrained vice to a zealous desire to serve God then again from safe and tidy church subculture into fighting for the safety of orphans caught in the crosshairs of war. By getting to know and love vulnerable children in desperate need of protection, the repentant rebel turns his unbridled violence into a passion for rescue and protection, with or without the help of friends and family. Sadly, those in the greatest position to help lack the spiritual and emotional resources of compassion and generosity.