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‘Black Snake Moan’ is startlingly alive

Story about a man chaining a woman to a radiator in order to rid her of her demons is shockingly sweet. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sweet is probably the last word you’d expect to use in describing a film about an aging black man who chains a young white woman to a radiator to cure her of her demons. In the rural South, of all places.

Sweet, however, is what “Black Snake Moan” ultimately, unexpectedly becomes.

This is a movie that’s definitely going to make people angry. Many will view it as racist, misogynistic or both — or just plain hard to watch. It doesn’t exactly shy away from being pulpy or over-the-top, which can be both its allure and its greatest weakness.

But if you can just accept the metaphor, and that’s what writer-director Craig Brewer intends the chain to be, you’ll find an ingenious vision of the fundamental concept of redemption. Love lost and found, faith lost and found — Brewer takes these tried-and-true themes and breathes bold, fresh life into them.

As in his last film, 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” he shows a keen ability to evoke a thick, rich mood. This place is so hot and sticky, you might break into a sweat just watching it. But this time he’s gotten better at developing his characters. Despite tour-de-force work from Terrence Howard as a wannabe rapper (and that irresistibly catchy, Oscar-winning song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”), “Hustle & Flow” paraded an array of pimp-and-ho cliches, and its tale of struggling artistry is one we’ve seen a million times before.

There’s more nuance here, more humanity. Samuel L. Jackson’s Lazarus and Christina Ricci’s Rae form a friendship that’s complicated, strange, often funny, but in the end balanced and very warm. S. Epatha Merkerson and Justin Timberlake complete the picture as the people who love them.

And the music? Let’s just say Jackson could step up to the mike at any juke joint on any night and bring the house down. (Ironically, Timberlake is the one person in this movie who doesn’t get to sing.)

As Lazarus, a small-time farmer whose wife has left him for his younger brother, Jackson gets to be everything you want to see him be on the screen: forceful, no-nonsense and slightly unpredictable. But there’s a softer side too, which is evident when Lazarus finds Rae lying on the side of the road near his house.

Rae is absolutely heartbreaking to watch — she’s so damaged after a lifetime of abuse, of using her body to relate to men because it’s the only thing she knows, she seems utterly beyond repair. The one man who loved her for her — who was her salvation, as she was his — is Timberlake’s Ronnie, who’s just left for boot camp.

When Lazarus finds Rae, she’s still in a stupor from having numbed herself at a party the previous night with booze and drugs. She’s been beaten up, raped and kicked from the front seat of a pickup truck wearing nothing but a cut-off T-shirt (emblazoned with a rebel flag, naturally) and a pair of white cotton panties. It’s a brave performance from Ricci, who’s never been afraid of challenging material.

Lazarus picks her up and begins nursing her back to health but soon realizes she’s in far worse shape than he’d imagined. She has these spells — this is where “Black Snake Moan” might lose you — in which she seethes and writhes from the inside out, and the only way she knows how to cure them is to act out in a brazenly sexual fashion.

Hence the chain — which is long and metal, and had been languishing in a box in Lazarus’ barn until he wraps it around Rae’s skinny waist. He figures that as long as he’s got her secured, she can’t cause herself (or anyone else) any harm. Lazarus also pulls out the old electric guitar he’d stopped playing and feels comfortable enough to sing her the blues — that helps. (One of the songs also provides inspiration for the movie’s title.) Sometimes the local preacher (John Cothran) stops by with a few words of advice — that helps, too.

It’s a crazy concept. It felt crazy writing it down just now. But as their relationship develops, they learn to trust and open up to each other, and there’s hope that they might become the people they’d lost sight of being.

Sounds hokey, but it feels startlingly alive and new.