"Black Snake Moan" comes at you like a swaggeringly tasteless exploitation movie. The setup hits outrageous and titillating Southern gothic hot buttons. See! The chained nymphet. See! Her black master. See! Her dark obsessions.
Craig Brewer (who exploded onto the scene with the pimp musical "Hustle and Flow") is not a filmmaker interested in safe subject matter. Yet he's also attracted to the idea of redemption. Brewer's new film taps the same down-in-the-dirt sensuality and stargazing spiritualism that has inspired so much great Southern music and literature. It may pull you into the tent with a promise of hoochie-koochie girls, but it delivers a rousing sermon on faith, hope and charity before it lets you back out again.
In his best role in ages, Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a retired farmer and juke-joint bluesman whose troubled life could be made into a song. He's just been dumped by his wife, who betrayed him with the one man he thought he could trust. His house feels powerful empty.
Then he discovers the unconscious, bloodied, half-naked Rae (Christina Ricci), the town nymphomaniac, dumped on the roadside by his home. He tenderly nurses her back to health, but won't consider his work done until he cures her unnatural itch for sex. This involves a lot of tough-love counseling about self-respect, and chaining her to the radiator until the lesson is learned. Like his namesake, Laz is all about rebirth.
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It takes a while for the insatiable Rae to simmer down. Ricci throws herself into the role with emphatic abandon, honoring the serious side of the character while giving her irresistible comic shadings. She attacks a visitor to Laz's home like a sexual trapdoor spider, in a scene worthy of a Russ Meyer farce.
Over time, though, she relaxes like a bucking filly soothed by a horse whisperer. Laz is the first male presence in Rae's life who is both strong and loving, and after the shock of being a captive diminishes, she's receptive to his guidance. In this uneasy cultural moment of Bratz dolls and "Girls Gone Wild" videos, Laz's approach to teaching ladylike conduct looks pretty persuasive.
Jackson owns the film, clearly relishing a part that taps his flair for macho heroism and funky humor. He also proves himself a more than competent guitarist and singer, growling out a rendition of "Stagger Lee" that will sell a lot of copies of the soundtrack.
But Brewer is too canny to let any performer overshadow the movie. Ricci is remarkable and Justin Timberlake contributes a solid supporting turn as Rae's boyfriend, who enlists in the military to escape her unquenchable demands but is anxious about leaving her alone. Brewer subtly eases a lot of social insight into the movie. The film is set in the kind of backwater town that Wal-Marts devastate; Laz, with his cabin and his little plot of farmland, is actually better off than Rae and her trailer trash friends.
The implication is clear: If he can better himself, so can Rae and so can anyone. "Black Snake Moan" is an exercise in optimism, a gritty but sweet "Pygmalion" story. No one could come out of this movie feeling worse about the world.
***1/2 out of four stars.