Author: Craig Brewer
Director: Craig Brewer
Wow, this is a really wild film. I’m still digesting it. There are just so many ways to interpret this. On the surface it’s a lurid gimmick: the story’s about a white trash slut who winds up at a religious black farmer’s house where he chains her up to keep her from running away and intends to “tame the wildness out of her.” The promos are graphic images of a nearly naked tiny white girl with a thirty foot long iron chain around her waist and a giant black man leering over her. But the film’s not exploitative at all. Instead it’s a serious study of relationships, religion, race, meaning and purpose, forgiveness, God, sin, life, sex. The cast is phenomenal: Christina Ricci is utterly convincing in her role, somehow both stunningly beautiful yet filthy and slutty and yet adorably appealing. It’s truly an amazing performance that I hope gets recognized, though I doubt that it will, considering the controversial nature and seemingly demeaning nature of the role. Samuel Jackson is also incredible as a flawed but genuine man, a simple farmer (and former bar singer), smoothly switching between furious vengeance and tenderness. It’s tough to come across as both gentle and violent, yet he does it convincingly. The supporting cast is also terrific, with a surprisingly good job by singer Justin Timberlake as Ricci’s troubled boyfriend.
This is not a pleasant film. It’s violent, blatantly sexual, and occasionally shocking, especially as the film’s tone morphs throughout. I was struck by the film’s verisimilitude: the actors and storyline are utterly convincing and that’s what makes the film work so well. For instance, one is shocked by Ricci’s overly sexual character as it seems excessive — we aren’t just shown a token scene of her slutty lifestyle, but scene after scene after scene. The shock and horror and disgust just builds and suddenly most films, which do try to establish radical character with a single scene, seem inadequate and unrealistic, and that makes this film feels intensely genuine, which exacerbates our horror.
In the hands of a less capable filmmaker this easily could have been turned into B-movie dreck; instead, this is an edgy film that takes huge risks and the payoffs are massive, with tremendous emotion and profundity revealed. I just loved the way the movie kept evolving, never quite going where you thought it would. It reminded me a lot of Crash in that respect. Except in Crash is was a key gimmick, done with manipulative editing; here it’s just part of the presentation and represents genuine aspects of the characters. For instance, in a pivotal scene, the town preacher stops by the black man’s home. Our minds immediately go to what’s going to happen if the girl reveals herself chained to the radiator. The scene culminates in the girl and preacher having one of the best conversations about God and forgiveness I have ever witnessed. It’s just amazing and brings tears to my eyes even now, the next day. That scene is the heart of the film but it doesn’t telegraph itself: there is no musical cue or grand widescreen shot announcing “big scene coming up.” It just happens, out of the blue, which is so much like real life. The scene is a perfect encapsulation of the film: it’s a heady mixture of surreal and real, an oxymoron brought to life. On the one hand you’ve got a half-naked girl, the town slut, chained to a radiator. On the other you’ve got a black preacher man, friendly and genuine, not particularly educated, but tremendously wise. The two sit at the kitchen table and talk as though this is normal. The girl’s bitter and angry, rebellious, curses constantly, and distains religion. The two seem like polar opposites, yet somehow they connect in a way that’s natural and believable. We see a vulnerable side to the girl, worldly understanding from the preacher. Each are true to their nature, yet each are deeper than we realized. The whole film’s like that, with several scenes that repeat such contradictory tones.
This is truly a breakthrough film, unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s harsh, it’s real, it’s tender, it’s emotional. It’s not flawless, but it’s damned impressive. Considering he had to handle such tricky material, the direction and writing of Craig Brewer is amazing. All that said, this is a difficult film to recommend. It’s violent and sexual, and not everyone is able to handle such material. If you can, however, I recommend you try. The payoff is worth it. Unfortunately, the film underrated and hard to find, which is a shame. This is a gem of a film. Ignore the lurid posters and trailer; this is a film of startling depth.