The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to his 2009 two-time Academy Award winning drama, Precious, premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Adapted by Daniels and Pete Dexter from Dexter’s 1995 novel ‘The Paperboy’, this sordid Southern backwater murder mystery is set in South Florida in the late 1960’s. A conceptually trashy work, it poses a lot of challenging questions, and amidst dealing with wrongful justice, civil rights and racism, sexually charged assault, professional betrayal, cold-blooded murder and inappropriate relationships it harks back to sleazy 70’s exploitation films and surprisingly centres focus on a young man’s journey from a directionless paper delivery boy to our increasingly hardened hero.
When Jack Jansen’s (Zac Efron) older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), an investigative reporter for the Miami Times, returns to their hometown with his British associate Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), he is hired to be their driver and assistant. At the behest of Ms. Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) they are investigating the murder of a sheriff and attempting to prove that Hillary Van Wetten (John Cusack), a repulsive swamp-dweller, was wrongly convicted. Charlotte has been in written correspondence with Hillary and has since fallen in love. Inexplicably, as they are yet to meet one another (her visits allow the others to tag along and make inquiries), they have made plans to marry as soon as he is released. But, as the investigation ensues, it is clear that there are some sinister secrets tied to this case and as tensions rise between Jack and Yardley and as Jack begins to fall in love with Charlotte, he finds himself immersed in a situation out of his depth.
In a trope that harks back to classic film noir, two non-detectives lead the investigation. They are journalists working outside the jurisdiction of the law, and while justice is certainly one of their goals, it is a career-progressing article that they seek. While the central investigation is pushed to the periphery at times, in favour of the weird relationship brewing between Jack and Charlotte, Daniels never forgets about the case. I found it a fascinating one, especially following the brothers’ unbelievably tense visit to Hillary’s brother’s house, located in the middle of the swamp that becomes the source of the chilling climax.
The performances are excellent with the actors pushed to the limit and doing things we simply couldn’t imagine seeing them do. Kidman justifiably received some Oscar attention playing this loudmouthed, skanky piece of work, and while her deranged mission to bed a man on death row should eliminate her from any sympathy, there is a vulnerability and sadness to her character that evokes the opposite.
McConaughey has just come off a banner year and we can add another winner to the resume. Ward is professional in mind, but disheveled in appearance and seemingly desperate at heart. His greasy hair is always messily slicked back, his sweaty shirt is always clinging to him and he has a wild, deranged look about him (the complete opposite to his sharp look in Killer Joe). The scars on either side of his mouth suggest that his dark side (revealed in the film) has not been favourable to him in the past. It is a shock to see Cusack come out from his death row dwelling for the first time. He pulls off the filthy hillbilly admirably. There is also great supporting work from Oyelowo, Macy Gray and Scott Glenn, who plays the brother’s father, W.W.
But, this is Efron’s story, and this is a role that proves that the star of High School Musical and The Lucky One can be a serious actor. It is one of the most incredible about-turns I can remember seeing. When we first meet Jack he is a bored, horny former swim star and college-dropout that has nothing to do but lounge around and playfully torment his family’s maid (Gray, who narrates the story). But Jack soon finds himself surrounded by debauchery, including concerning race relations and a sickening act of sexual assault, and how he registers and interprets these situations is wise beyond his life experience. Having to take on unexpected responsibility it is clear that he has changed significantly by the end of the film.
The small town setting, and the surrounding swamps are frequently humid. The steamy, lethargic atmosphere, which results in the characters being endlessly bathed in their own sweat, is the perfect setting for such a sordid melodrama to unfold. Shot on grainy Super 16mm film the visuals are colour-reduced and Daniels’ indulges in some ugly cutting, and more than a few campy flourishes. The soundtrack is not particularly memorable, but the score that accompanies the climax was a piece of low-key mood brilliance.
The Paperboy is a strange film, and it takes a little while to decide how you feel about it. It is by no means a masterpiece, but despite appearances, the patchy story and the multitude of distractions, it throws enough slimy curveballs to keep the audience intrigued and, for better or worse, some talking-point moments you won’t quickly forget. There’s a beach-set scene featuring Kidman and Effron you no doubt have already heard about – it was the talking point of Cannes – but when Hillary asks Charlotte to put on a contact-less sex show for him at the prison the first time they meet, in front of Ward, Jack and Yardley, you know you’re in for an experience that’s out of control.
Wading through this film’s muck and mire can be ugly, but its strongest elements won’t let you down. I have been an outspoken detractor of ‘Precious’ since its release, and there is a lot more about this understandably divisive film that worked for me. It is an edgy romance, a murder mystery, and a coming of age story all at once, and as uncomfortable as some of the scenes are to watch, they are the skin to the alligator’s back.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22