Behind the decadently trashy surface of Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan lies a soft, squishy center. Hustle & Flow gave audiences an uplifting crowd-pleaser about a pimp, his hos, and his flows. Now, Black Snake Moan delivers the sentimental, heartwarming tale of a boozy, drug-crazed white sex addict (Christina Ricci, a long way from Casper) and the nice older black man (Samuel L. Jackson) who chains her to his radiator as part of an unconventional crash course in self-respect and morality. Brewer's latest nouveau blaxploitation/arthouse mash-up is pitched uncomfortably but compellingly between homage and exploitation in its big-hearted exploration of the steamiest corners of black life.
Like the strangely simpatico films of fellow Southern humanist David Gordon Green, Moan fetishizes sweat and decay as it surveys a very dirty South seemingly devoid of computers, iPods, cell phones, and other ubiquitous fixtures of contemporary life. Ricci struts defiantly through this '70s-style time warp as a lusty nymphomaniac who falls back into her bad old ways after jittery boyfriend Justin Timberlake departs for boot camp. When Timberlake's redneck brother viciously beats Ricci and leaves her for dead, grief-stricken bluesman Jackson brings her back to his shotgun shack and tries to set her on the straight and narrow.
Jackson sets about saving himself and exorcising his own formidable demons by rescuing Ricci from a life of sin and degradation. Their gradually improving relationship is contrasted with Jackson's sweet, stumbling courtship of kindly pharmacist S. Epatha Merkerson, in a subplot that epitomizes the film's surprising social conservatism. In Moan, promiscuity and abortion are the problems—Jackson is mourning the termination of his unborn child as much as the death of his marriage—and fidelity and marriage are the solution, though a question mark of an ending nicely undercuts Brewer's moralistic streak. Brewer's alternately bold and timid B-movie intermittently achieves a sweat-soaked fever-dream intensity, only to pull back into conventional drama. Like Hustle & Flow, Moan succeeds on languid atmosphere and the conviction of its leads. But it'd be nice if the execution matched the startling audacity of its premise.