Black Snake Moan

The thing that stands out the most in “Black Snake Moan” isn’t the highly charged sexuality that dominates the first half, or the curiously uplifting theme of redemption that takes over in the second. It’s the authentic dialogue that flows through the film, rich and alive, the kind of dialogue that makes novelists envious.

It’s not what the characters say that’s so dynamic, it’s the way they say it. The slang, the syntax, and the diction are all perfectly representative of a small, dusty Southern town. You can believe that Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci and the rest really are these people, with the backgrounds and life stories the movie gives them.

So the dialogue is real. The story, not so much. It begins in exploitation land and winds up as a quasi-religious turn-your-life-around fable, and it’s audacious and outrageous all the way through. Yet part of the magic worked by writer/director Craig Brewer (whose “Hustle & Flow” I found contrived) is that even at its most ludicrous, “Black Snake Moan” stays somehow believable. You think, “I can’t believe I’m buying this,” but the fact remains, you’re buying it.

Jackson plays a man with the biblical name of Lazarus, though this time around it’s Lazarus who will be doing the raisin’, not bein’ raised. He’s a blues guitarist (the film’s title is from a song) and dirt-poor bean farmer who has every right to sing the blues. His woman done left him for another man, and that other man is Lazarus’ own brother. He’s filled with anger and indignation, and while his church attendance has lapsed, and though his words and deeds aren’t always entirely Christlike, he’s a God-fearing, Bible-believing man. I suspect he favors the retributive God of the Old Testament over the lovey-dovey one of the New Testament, though.

Meanwhile, we meet Rae (Ricci), an unbelievably trashy girl whose boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has just shipped off with the National Guard, leaving her to face life alone for the foreseeable future. The term “nymphomaniac” used to get thrown around a lot, usually undeservedly, as the women in question were often just slutty, not pathological. But Rae is a nympho in the truest sense. Her desire to have sex is a full-blown compulsion, and she wails and claws at herself when she’s denied. She also indulges in booze and pills at a near-professional level.

After a particularly ribald night (the first night of Ronnie’s absence), Rae winds up unconscious and injured on the dirt road near Lazarus’ house. He brings her inside and begins nursing the fevered, coughing girl back to health, and while she’s still unconscious, he goes into town and learns her story. Just like his wife, Rae has been out a-whorin’. Just like his wife, Rae needs to be brought back into righteousness.

And so, obviously, he chains her to the radiator as a sort of sex detox program. No leaving the house until all the sinfulness has worked its way out of your system! I’m pretty sure the Bible backs me up on this!

That’s the part of the film that got all the attention in the pre-release ads and news stories, but in truth it only comprises about half of the story. There’s more to it than just chaining the nympho to a radiator. Rae, Lazarus, and even Ronnie have obstacles to overcome before they can find happiness, and Rae must eventually stand on her own two feet, free of Lazarus’ well-meaning imprisonment, and take care of herself.

Jackson, one of the hardest-working men in Hollywood, gives another fine performance as Lazarus. He completely inhabits the man’s aging body, his bruised ego, and his wounded, fiery soul. Ricci, for her part, shows vulnerability as Rae, and fearlessness in her warts-and-all portrayal of her, while Justin Timberlake continues his surprising emergence as a much better actor than you’d expect him to be. S. Epatha Merkerson (the lieutenant on “Law & Order”) has a nice turn as Miss Angie, the kindly pharmacist who has a chaste crush on Lazarus, and John Cothran Jr. shines as Lazarus’ preacher friend R.L.

It’s hard to overlook the inherent wrongness in what Lazarus does to Rae, no matter how good his intentions are, and it would be easy to dismiss the film as nothing more than tawdry trash. Brewer certainly does amp up the sexual tension in the first 45 minutes, with Billy Fox’s editing and Scott Bomar’s musical score adding a sultry intensity to everything that happens. But it’s also hard to miss how different things are by the film’s end, how redemptive and hopeful and downright sweet it all seems. Lazarus and Brewer both have unorthodox methods, but the results are spot-on.

B+ (1 hr., 55 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some nudity, some strong sexuality, a little violence.)