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MOVIE REVIEW

'Black Snake Moan' is exploitative, but it's also electric

Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) chains up a sex addict (Christina Ricci, left) in 'Black Snake Moan.' Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) chains up a sex addict (Christina Ricci, left) in "Black Snake Moan." (photos by bruce talamon/paramount vantage via associated press)

Maybe it's because Christina Ricci's tattered Confederate halter-top has a flag for each breast. Maybe it's because Samuel L. Jackson , in the most interesting performance he's given in years, looks like both Sanford and son. Or maybe it's because Justin Timberlake has a significant part in a movie where everybody sings but him. But Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" is why I go to the movies.

There's a special thrill in watching a filmmaker momentarily lose his mind. Even before Jackson's character, a farming Memphis bluesman named Lazarus, chains Ricci's sex addict up to his radiator, Brewer's movie is a hot-blooded provocation about lust and race, though not necessarily at the same time. It's out to shock and entertain. This movie is crazy, but the insanity is electric.

"Black Snake Moan" is about a woman's attempt to kick her nasty habit. But it also feels like a director's attempt to kick his own misogyny. Brewer's last movie was "Hustle & Flow," in which Terrence Howard played a pimp with a trio of hookers who got on his nerves. The women were 57 varieties of skanky, but rarely human. "Black Snake Moan" feels like a gradual atonement for the previous movie's limited imagination regarding women in the eyes of men. Brewer can now imagine a man lifting a finger to help a woman in need. Admittedly, the help is outrageous: Ricci's wastrel, Rae, wakes up with a stud-link anchor chain wrapped around her inexplicably toned waist.

She finds herself in this position after her jittery soldier boyfriend, Ronnie (Timberlake) , leaves for basic training. His ride has barely pulled away from his country shack when Rae collapses in the grass and writhes in excruciated ecstasy, jamming her hands between her legs: Yes, she's gotta have it, and have it she does, proverbially -- no, wait almost literally -- with every Tom, Dick, and Harry in town. Sassy and sleazy, she's a walking, talking mud flap. (One of her regulars is the local pimp played by the dirty-sexy rapper David Banner , whose drawl constitutes a foreign language.)

After a long night of bopping around a party drunk, tripping on OxyContin , and being left on a lawn with all the other refuse, Rae is assaulted and dumped on the side of the road like a half-empty Cinch Sack. Old Lazarus finds her bloodied and barely dressed the following morning as he's taking out his own garbage. Lazarus was on a bender himself the night before. His wife just left him for his younger brother, and he messed up his house in miserable celebration.

As a matter of safety , Lazarus scoops up Rae and takes her into his home. He does some snooping around town, worried that whoever did this to her might be black. (Not so.) But as Banner's pimp reports, she's just a nympho in need of a cure: "Collar that dawg," he says. And so after Rae slithers and wails on the living room floor -- still bloodied and half-naked -- and Lazarus's attempts at a Holy Bible exorcism fail, his rehab turns hard - core, and out come the chains.

"Look girl," Jackson explains, the gospel of disgust rising in his voice in that chilling Samuel L. Jackson way, "You been running wild!" Of course, finding her a clean pair of short shorts seems to take longer than cleansing her soul.

"Black Snake Moan" builds to Ricci's enslavement with a surprising sense of drama. The soundtrack deploys thundering rhythmic blues that seem to get louder with every scene. Brewer convincingly declares himself a serious exploitation director. His movie is like Roger Corman directing Timbaland and Nelly Furtado in a deep-fried version of "Caged Heat."

Next to shameless showmanship, regional authenticity is his other big asset. He's a white guy from Memphis, and his decision to leave rap music alone for this new picture and try the blues is smart. For one thing it makes room for the juke-joint drama that was missing in the risible recording sessions of "Hustle & Flow."

More crucially, the blues is capacious enough for the sexual and romantic ache that hip-hop is too macho to admit. In his first movie, Brewer got lucky, since Terrence Howard put blues-tinged longing in his rapping pimp. But "Black Snake Moan" rumbles with real hurt.

The movie, whose title comes from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, is bookended with the spiritually restless Delta Blues pioneer Son House , who is shown in several archival cutaways. But the music seeps into the dialogue in some early scenes between Lazarus and his wife (Adriane Lenox ) that might as well be from a Buddy Guy-Koko Taylor duet. And Jackson reaches into himself, showing all manners of disgust, shame, rage, heartbreak, and -- how could I forget -- complete derangement. Not since "Jungle Fever" has he been so vulnerably human.

Ricci is so good at being so sub human that you're forced to wonder if she's just more perceptive than the rest of us. Is there a woman in that character? Scarcely. But resembling no one so much as a baby Susan Sarandon (those wide, feral eyes), she goes at the part with mind-boggling abandon, anyway. Both she and Jackson give themselves over to Brewer's nuttiness in a way that forces you to wonder during every single scene: What were they thinking?

By the second half of the picture, Brewer starts to come to his senses, and the movie loses its kick. When the chains come off Rae, he more or less applies them himself. It's as if the power of the movie's sexual absurdity scared him too. Soon we learn of Rae's tragic childhood. Then Timberlake's soldier comes home, and the movie turns into a psychologizing melodrama about redemption and reconciliation. None of the sexual-racial lines the movie seems hurtling toward are crossed.

The loss of nerve is a letdown that feels like both a commercial concession and a way to keep the peace. Had the old black man and the young white chick gotten it on, I think some audiences might have exploded. Perhaps sensing this, "Black Snake Moan" backs off, giving us a neat and clean Hallmark card ending that leaves you worried that Brewer's sexorcism did a number on him, too.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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