This film was a disastrous commercial failure, but that was less due to its quality than certain basically unfixable issues with its publicity campaign. The film is, in effect, a deconstruction of exploitation films. It’s about a white Southern girl with nymphomania, and a black blues musician who, after finding her left for dead, chains her to his radiator in an attempt to ‘cure’ her.
The amazing thing is that none of this vintage exploitation plot it handled in an exploitative way. Leading female Rae’s nymphomania is consistently and vividly portrayed as terrifying and tragic rather than even slightly titillating, and despite the copious nudity, I guarantee you that there is not one second of this film that is remotely sexy.
Also, despite its prominent role in the publicity, the chaining up aspect is actually rather downplayed in the actual film. He doesn’t keep her chained up all that long—it last a couple of days in-story, but it’s really only about fifteen minutes of the actual film. After that, he gives her the freedom to go and she stays with him anyway because she’s concluded that he really is her best hope to get better. The relationship between the two leads is complex and fascinating, particularly since there is absolutely nothing sexual about their odd connection.
This dark and painfully honest drama is played out by one of the best casts of the decade. Samuel L. Jackson, here offered a chance to play a serious character instead of his usual cartoon roles, comes through beautifully, giving a searing and incredibly intense performance that still has enough humanity and nuance to avoid turning into melodramatic caricature. He also performs most of the blues songs that make up the soundtrack himself; he learned to play guitar for the role, and he shows a surprising affinity with the style.
Christina Ricci, who was so dedicated to this role that she starved herself until skeletally thin for it, gives probably the single best performance of her career as Rae, coming across as a tragic, emotionally bruised waif who just wants to be loved, and simply cannot control the horrible addiction that is destroying her life. Justin Timberlake, as Rae’s nice-guy fiancée, manages to hold his own against these two incredible turns, and gives a heartfelt and honest performance in his own right.
The problem with the film was that, for all its considerable merits, it was basically impossible to market. The actors, particularly Ricci, complained about the film’s marketing campaign making it look like a straight-up exploitation film, but to be honest, I don’t think they really had much of a choice—anyone who hears this movie’s plot premise without actually seeing it is going to think ‘exploitation film’, and no publicity campaign could really get around that.
Meanwhile, the actual audience for exploitation films wouldn’t find this appealing in the slightest…not only is it possibly the least sexy movie of all time, but it deconstructs every standard aspect of the genre and is basically telling them they’re bad people for finding the idea of nymphomania sexy in the first place.
So the film failed to find its audience at the time, but I’m still extremely hopeful that we haven’t heard the last of it. Time, after all, has a way of doing this kind of marketing much better and more thoroughly and accurately than a studio publicity campaign, and given this movie’s staggering dramatic impact, it looks like a perfect candidate for the status of a genuine sleeper classic.