It may be hard out there for a pimp, but it ain't too hard for a writer-director to make a movie whose marketing hinges on the lurid spectacle of Samuel L. Jackson pulling a half-naked Christina Ricci around on a chain. This sort of cheap trick is what they used to call exploitation—or, more to the point, blaxploitation; despite the sounds of them, neither term is derogatory, at least not toward the movies. Ex- and blax- formulas are merely the shortcuts that underprivileged properties take to getting themselves funded and promoted and seen: Put a (black) man pulling a half-naked (white) woman around on a chain in your pitch/poster/trailer and, particularly if your last feature was the pimpin'-ain't-easy Oscar-winner Hustle & Flow, you got a deal. Matter of fact, you might also have a masterpiece, since such a great movie can, in theory, be made from any subject—including that of a smooth-rappin' pimp who gets his house in order and his hos, too.
Alas, theory ain't shit when the final cut is due, and, as Flow-maker Craig Brewer ain't Melvin Van Peebles (or John Waters or Russ Meyer or Larry Cohen or Katt Shea Ruben), Black Snake Moan sho-nuff ain't no Sweetback. Indeed, long stretches of Brewer's Suthun-fried sophomore slump come down the country road lookin' as haggard as a workaholic ho on a Sunday morning. (Yes, this review is a piece of exploitation, too.) As in Flow, Brewer only allows himself so much nasty fun before it's time to issue his trick-turners their hard-earned redemption: Jackson's chain-yankin' Lazarus learns to temper his righteous indignation; Ricci's Rae, she of the belly-baring Confederate-flag tee and unclean panties, puts on some decent clothes and even reckons she might get hitched; the filmmaker begins to direct his grindhouse fantasy of female enslavement as if it were Our Town.
At least Brewer knows well the first rule of exploitation, which is that if the premise don't fit on a condom wrapper or a piece of rolling paper, it ain't a movie. This one could fit on one of Rae's sorely needed cough drops: Cruelly cuckolded middle-aged Tennessee farmer and part-time bluesman goes to take out the garbage, finds a piece of white trash left for dead in a ditch, takes her in, and then sets about stripping the scantily clad young nymph of her evil ways. L'il ball 'n' chain disciplinin' never hurt any slut, even one who's got a wicked fever and been beaten bloody. Lazarus actually turns out to be a real gentleman, drawin' baths and singin' lullabies and such, although Brewer can't resist taking advantage of Rae in her weakened condition by giving her rape nightmares, which are made to look just a smidge like pay-cable porn, the camera sliding down the poor nymph's leg while she tosses and turns. Unconscious, this girl's still gotta have it.
As even Esquire's hot and bothered critic couldn't fail to notice, Brewer is upstanding enough to pay for his sins. Beginning with a bang—Justin Timberlake's soon-to-ship-out National Guardsman bumpin' and grindin' atop his half-loyal girlfriend Rae—Black Snake Moan finds God around the bend, with Jackson's perverse holy man once again drawing his pulp fiction straight outta the good book. For Lazarus (or Brewer), scrubbing this bad girl's soul means not subjecting her to slavery so much as getting her to work in the kitchen, to sing "This Little Light of Mine" (no kidding), to appreciate a talking blues sermon about the hellfire horrors of abortion. Lord willing, our hero can break this wild mare: Call him the Ho Whisperer.
Second rule of exploitation: For God's sake, don't be boring. Alas, after his camera has had its fill of ogling Rae, Brewer turns out to have nothing up his sleeve, nothing in his pants, only a little on his mind and none of it, amazingly, to do with race. Whatever provocation helps sell the movie—including Timberlake's knee-jerk turn as a panic-attacked grunt—doesn't give Black Snake Moan the slightest hint of substance, which is maybe the real reason it got the green light. Both times I saw the film (like Rae, I'm a glutton for punishment), male buddies in the theater turned to one another with knowing smirks—like, Holy moly, now ain't this one a l'il vixen? Maybe these guys had lost their...uh, full attention by the time Brewer contrives to get Rae all gussied up and ready to shake her thing down the aisle. But by then, I might reckon the good ol' boys got what they came for.