Grainy, sweat-smeared and more kitsch than an Elvis Presley bedspread, The Paperboy has a title that sounds like a made-for-TV Disney movie, but it’s easily the most outrageous film of the year. A kaleidoscope of murder, sex and violence, Lee Daniels’ (Precious) third directorial effort is a swampy oddity as brazen as it is wilfully bizarre.
The year is 1969 and Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) has just returned home to Florida with colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) in tow. They’re researching the story of Florida resident Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a perma-tanned blonde bombshell who’s been writing to a prisoner on death row.
Charlotte’s convinced that inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of the murder of Sheriff Thurmond Call, and she wants Ward to help her prove it. Roping in younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to help, Ward leads this strange band of truth-seekers into dark, alligator-infested waters.
Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, The Paperboy is a trashy neo-noir populated with the kind of characters that rarely see the light of day in mainstream movies. From Macy Gray’s sardonic, long-suffering housemaid (who also provides a rasping narration) to Kidman’s beautifully complex Barbie, it’s the characters that make Paperboy riveting from start to finish despite a catalogue of sins.
Those sins are, in all honesty, plentiful. Frequently lacking in focus and devoid of tension when it’s needed, Daniels’ film tumbles along making casual remarks about racism and sexuality that never really carry much weight. The film’s often messy, unsure just which story it really wants to tell, and its central mystery is distracting instead of intriguing.
So why the four stars? Well, all of that can be accepted (if not excused) in the captivating presence of The Paperboy’s unconventional players. Efron and Kidman are the heart of the film, both adrift, both toying with conventional ideas of beauty. She enjoys his covetous gazes, in turn playing up to his image of her (according to Gray’s narration) as “his mama, high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie doll all at once”. The Paperboy isn’t looking for easy answers; it’s content with the rough and tumble as it deals out killer one-liners and instantly iconic images.
If Efron’s growing maturity impresses, and Kidman’s gung-ho approach thrills, it’s Cusack who’s the real surprise here. Dirty in more ways than one, he’s a revelation as sex-obsessed inmate Hillary, and central to many of Paperboy’s most memorable moments – including a ‘psychic’ sex scene with Kidman that has to be seen to be believed.
Flying its freak flag with pride, Daniels’ film is a weird, mesmerising ball of contradictions, buoyed by the strength of its performances, but also aesthetically gorgeous (it was shot on Super 16, which gives the film a lovely grubby look). It’s sexy, shocking and stylish, and you’ve never seen anything like it. 4/5
Via Grolsch Film Works