'Black Snake Moan' captures some of the darkest elements of American society in an unconventional way and refreshingly ends up being less about the lessons learned than it is about the characters whose stories are being told.

Rae (Ricci) is branded all kinds of names in her small town. Abused as a child, she has accepted a place in life as a plaything for men. She carries the scars of her abuse both inwardly and outwardly, making a habit of flipping humours on a whim and going on drink and drug binges.

She is the ultimate female contradiction. She seems to ooze confidence, sexiness and danger and appears to be always in control, yet she is vulnerable in every respect, is prone to fits and regularly drinks herself into complete oblivion.

And yet her soldier boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) feels like she is his medicine. Suffering from anxiety attacks, the only place he seems to find comfort is in her arms and so he thinks she has fixed him. But together they make for the most dysfunctional couple.

In the same town Lazarus' (Jackson) wife has just run off with another man, making him the talk of the town and pushing his anger levels through the roof, despite the efforts of his preacher friend (Cothran Jr) to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Lazarus wants to believe that God has a plan for him but he can find no meaning in his life, until one day he finds an unconscious Rae lying on the road outside his house. She has been badly beaten and is feverish. And so Laz believes she has been put in his path for a reason and will go to any lengths to save her, even chaining her to a radiator to prevent from her escaping once well in body.

'Black Snake Moan' is moody without being too challenging and manages to get its point across in a less than preachy way (despite much humorous bible-bashing), with lashings of black humour and very realistic characterisation. The acting is more than convincing, particularly from a physically transformed Ricci and an on-form Jackson. Timberlake also continues his good form, being perhaps underused as the baby-faced, jumpy soldier here.

While not a whole lot actually happens throughout, this flick impresses for its outstanding acting and gritty social commentary, in spite of the fact that it doesn't delve too deep beyond the personal stories it portrays. The characters are strong and edgy, sparking off each other and setting up a tense battlefield for their collective struggles.

'Black Snake Moan' is racy and confrontational, using hallucinations and a brilliant score to enhance the mood of the day. It plays on paranoid fears, the scars of life and the idea of 'what goes around comes around' to create a tense atmosphere and really get inside the minds of the characters. A job well done by all concerned.

Linda McGee