Beaten, bloody and drugged, an alarmingly skinny blond sexpot awakes from a haze only to find herself tethered by a heavy chain around her waist. No, its not just another fun weekend for Lindsay Lohan, but in fact the centerpiece of Hustle and Flow director Craig Brewer's new film, a torrid Southern gothic so overheated it threatens to melt the screen. Turns out the girl is Rae (Christina Ricci), the local trollop, and after an especially nasty night on the town she's been chained up by a depressed former bluesman named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who views her not as kinky plaything but a ticket to personal salvation. He makes it his mission to "cleanse" her of her wanton ways, and, though Laz doesn't "get medieval on her ass," he does serve up heaping helpings of that old-time religion, and a side order of homespun wisdom. Rae has been whoring all around their rural Tennessee community, just like the wife who recently walked out on Laz, and if he can cure her of wicked ways he just might redeem himself, the naughty girl and all bad women. Meanwhile, her troubled but pure-hearted one true love Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is on his way back from bombing out of the Army, and he's not likely to appreciate the social science experiment being inflicted on his honey. The cast is tremendous, fully committed to the storyline, no matter how funky its twists and bends, with the glittering Ricci doing everything that's asked of her with astounding grace.
A slinky Ricci in chains is certainly a powerful image, and makes for a hell of an old-school exploitation poster, but it raises the question: Just what is Brewer getting at? Not only sex, but gender politics, race, class, violence and religion get dragged through the mud in Black Snake Moan, a film that wants to engage us in many different debates at once, no matter how problematic the tools employed to start the conversation.
It's also questionable if the man who recently made a testament to pimp ascendancy is the best candidate to make a statement about female empowerment. But, no matter how deep the symbolic risks, Brewer trudges ever further into the swamp. It's the very impolite and unseemly manner that Blake Snake uses to tackle the big issues that gives the movie its curious hypnotic strength and exhilarating unpredictability. It also leads to a discomfiting and lingering sense of being intentionally provoked. There's a difference between venerating Southern culture and wallowing around in tired stereotypes. Seems you gotta sin to get saved, a mantra that applies not just to the characters but perhaps to the filmmaker.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].