by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Black Snake Moan & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & lack Snake Moan begins with two stories told in parallel. Rae (Christina Ricci) fights, moans and bawls her way through the departure of her common-law husband Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). Cut to Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) who argues futilely to keep his wife, Rose, from leaving him.

First Rae and Ronnie roll around in the sack. Then she bawls out in front of their single-wide trailer, clad in Ronnie's shirt, watching him drive off to serve a tour in the National Guard. Sexually reactive and possessed of a horrible cough, she's sick, emotionally and physically. Lazarus, having been cuckolded by Rose and his brother, first begs his wife to stay, then heaps profanity upon her before quoting some condemnatory scripture. It's a disquieting sequence. Mixing compulsive sex and mental instability on the one hand with righteous indignation and emotional volatility on the other, writer/director Craig Brewer is trying to create a sense of Southern life at its poorest extremes.

Rae wants desperately to remain faithful to Ronnie, but her will is almost immediately broken when she takes up with a pusher and pimp (David Banner). Later, in the course of an evening pocked with drugs and booze, she's raped by one guy, beaten by another and left for dead by both.

Lazarus finds her in his driveway the next morning. He takes her in, breaks her fever, nurses her to health and, when he finds out she's been having sex all around town, chains her to his radiator. "I mean to cure you of your wickedness," he says. Having disowned a brother and wife in one day, he's also interested in saving himself.

What begins as Southern caricature becomes farce, with much of the film's middle section involving Rae trying to escape Laz's clutches, though with little success. By and by, however, the two come to a sort of cease-fire and, you know, the healing begins.

The early portrayal of Rae as demonstrably unable to contain her lust is, at best, cartoonish. But the film slowly pursues the psychological roots of her actions, finding beneath her hard-living trashiness a scared little girl who endured early molestation and thereafter was "beat on like a dog."

It's a clever move cinematically, though I'm sure it will earn writer/director Craig Brewer a fair amount of criticism. Through his early caricature of Rae, he's tried to offer up our own perceptions. The way Rae is regarded as she stomps around town, alternately with lust and disgust, is symptomatic of a society that never bothers to look deeper than one's ass-bearing cutoffs. In the stereotype of the sex-crazed Southern belle, Brewer sees a cycle of meaningless, compulsive sex and a legacy of abuse. Having never known anything approaching familial love, Rae retreats into sex, mistaking it for intimacy and mistaking objectification for compassion.

By the end of the film, we see that, too: Rae makes the transition in our minds from caricature to character. That change, though, isn't easy to watch. Though couched in farce and leavened with a lot of humor, the painful, unsexy intercourse and prevalent sexual abuse makes this an incredibly difficult film to sit through. If it were anything less, though, it wouldn't capture the layers of torment that sex abuse victims endure. By tracing the painful journey from molestation to violence to societal scorn, Black Snake Moan is a more important film than it seems to want to be. (Rated R)

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