By Mandi Bierly
March 02, 2007 at 08:54 PM EST

Sorry, you’ll just have to see this movie for yourself. The critics are split.

In case you weren’t mentally scarred from the trailer, let’s start with a plot summary from EW’s own Lisa Schwarzbaum: “In Black Snake Moan, Christina Ricci [pictured] plays Rae, a backwoods Tennessee baby doll who’s been done wrong all her life — beginning with her daddy’s dirty hands — and that’s why she’s now a raging nymphomaniac: When Rae’s one true love, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, Renaissance man!), ships off to Army boot camp, she’s instantly itchier and wilder than a cat on a hot tin movie set. To quote the precise medical diagnosis of one of the townsfolk: ‘She got dat sickness. She gotta get d— or she go crazy.’ Stat! Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a Memphis musician who’s been done wrong by his wife — she’s run off with Laz’s brother — and that’s why he has stopped singing God’s gift of the blues and done taken up religion. Rae’s angry, he’s angrier. She’s white, tiny, and near-naked; he’s big, black, and clothed in righteousness, telling her, ‘I aim to cure you of your wickedness. You sick. You gonna mahhhhnd me.’ He chains her to a radiator for her own good and sings to her, and she comes to love him for it and… huh?”

While some critics unabashedly praise this film from Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer (like Kevin Smith, who called it “about as fine a piece of Southern Gothic as you’ll ever see, right up there with anything written by William Faulkner, Harper Lee or Tennessee Williams” while serving as a guest reviewer on Ebert & Roeper), others such as the Arizona Daily Star‘s Phil Villarreal do so almost apologetically. “Believe it or not, all this is the setup for a sweet surrogate-father-daughter coming-of-age film. You can despise Brewer for his choice of subject material…but not his abilities as a storyteller. He has an eye and ear for luscious detail, and his nonsensical, drawling dialogue flows from Jackson’s mouth like angelic poetry.”

Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir stands in Villarreal’s corner: “Some viewers will doubtless disagree, but I see no misogyny at the heart of Black Snake Moan.It depicts a misogynist society, one that has beaten, shamed andvictimized Rae all her life. But if that society has warped Rae’sself-image, it has not vanquished her spirit. Both she and Lazarus maybe trapped in dime-novel situations, separately and together, but theynonetheless are complicated, fleshed-out characters, marred byself-hatred and stiffened by pride.” Slate Magazine‘s Dana Stevens, not so much. “I guarantee that the words provocative, bold, and courageouswill be bandied about in discussions of this movie, and they won’t beentirely misplaced… But can we just start with something very basichere? Chaining someone to your radiator is wrong. Depriving anear-naked and recently assaulted stranger of the most basic physicalliberty for days on end is a sick, perverse, and cruel thing to do. Black Snake Moanappears to be — or, worse, pretends to be — oblivious to that simplefact. And that obliviousness makes all of the movie’s supposedrisk-taking seem more like exploitation.” (Slant‘sNick Schager doesn’t see that as a problem, calling the film,”exploitation cinema of the grungiest, nastiest, and thus finest order,delivering a volatile batch of extreme sex, extreme profanity, and —most of all — extreme racial and gender dynamics.”)

What can we all agree on? That USA Today‘s Claudia Plug momentarily loses some credibility when she says, “In Black Snake Moan, set in the Tennessee backwoods, Jackson’s role is worlds away from his sharp, sophisticated law enforcement character in Snakes on a Plane.” (“Sharp, sophisticated”?) And that The Village Voice‘sRob Nelson had a good time writing his review. Under the headline”Hussy ‘N’ Flow: God-fearing black man tames slutty white girl as CraigBrewer’s South rises again,” he writes: “Indeed, long stretches ofBrewer’s Suthun-fried sophomore slump come down the country roadlookin’ as haggard as a workaholic ho on a Sunday morning. (Yes, thisreview is a piece of exploitation, too.)… For Lazarus (or Brewer),scrubbing this bad girl’s soul means not subjecting her to slavery somuch as getting her to work in the kitchen, to sing ‘This Little Lightof Mine’ (no kidding), to appreciate a talking blues sermon about thehellfire horrors of abortion. Lord willing, our hero can break thiswild mare: Call him the Ho Whisperer.”