An odd little movie about blues and redemption in Tennessee that is, surprisingly, much sweeter than its outrageous and trashy-sounding premise would have you think.
The movie stars Christina Ricci (where did you go, Christina Ricci?) as Rae, a young girl with the reputation of a local tramp and history of abuse, who goes on a compulsive sex-and-drugs bender when her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leaves after signing up for the army. When Ronnie’s friend tries to take advantage of Rae, it ends with her savagely battered and left for dead. She’s then found by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues musician and now a farmer whose wife has just walked out (this is a blues movie after all). Lazarus decides that God didn’t just put Rae in his path so that he could nurse her back to health, but that he’s meant to rescue her from the life of sexual wickedness with men who treat her like trash. To this end, he shackles Rae to a radiator with a 40-pound chain until she changes her ways. I’d love to have been in the room when the idea for this movie was pitched.
Of course it’s very much against the law to chain young women to a radiator to say the least, but the movie styles itself less like a realistic depiction of normal life and more like a larger-than-life fable, or the heightened, melodramatic world of a blues song. There’s a lot of wonderful blues music in the film, performed impressively by Jackson who learned to play the guitar for the role. The sweaty, raunchy blues rave at the local bar late in the film, with Lazarus firing up the crowd and Rae dancing joyfully, does a lot to dispel the notion that this is a preachy “sex is baaad” kind of movie. It is primarily about restraint, of which the chain is a rather unsubtle symbol.
There are some good supporting turns; Justin Timberlake mostly made me forget that I was watching Justin Timberlake, and his rotten friend, I noticed, is played by the same actor who played Drew Marshall in the first season of True Blood (it seems to be his thing to play creepy Southern dudes). But the film is really a duet and the leads are vital to its success. Both Jackson and Ricci give compelling and ballsy performances and disappear into their characters, Jackson in particular a stand-out, mixing his usual onscreen energy and charisma with sensitivity and soulful weariness on one side and darker, more explosive impulses on the other. By the end, I found the unlikely friendship between these two outsiders who help each other heal genuinely moving.