Precious came out in 2009 to vast critical acclaim and cemented director Lee Daniels as one to watch out for. His follow-up movie, The Paperboy, however, didn’t do quite so well when released late last year.
Based on the small-scale 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, the film was faced with scathing reviews and did terribly at the Cannes film festival. The film was considered trashy and unpleasant and seen essentially as a directorial misstep. Yet some critics admired the movie, finding fascination in the rubbish, with some such as Telegraph writer Robbie Collin going so far as to reappraise the film on a second viewing. And whilst The Paperboy is far from a great movie, there is a certain appeal to the film, and it can’t be said that it doesn’t make for interesting viewing.
The film, set in Florida in the late 60s, deals with Miami Times reporters Ward and Yardley (Mathew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) as they investigate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man on Death Row who apparently murdered a local sheriff. The reporters set out to prove Hillary’s innocence, citing flaws in the police evidence, and Ward’s younger, ex-swimmer brother Jack (Zac Efron) and Hillary’s future wife Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) come along for the ride. The group find themselves involved in a case of corrupt policemen, Southern slurs and sexual decadence, and find that investigating the case may not have been their wisest decision.
What’s most striking about The Paperboy is the atmosphere – rarely has a film captured the humid, sweltering Florida sun so well before; the film literally sweats and the little details of alligator-filled swamps and humming crickets make the movie buzz and feel alive. There’s a real sense of heat and languid summer boredom as these characters sit in hot cars wondering what to do with each other. The film revels in the Southern Gothic and we get all the tropes here – innocent men on Death Row, mysterious murders, Southern belles with perverted sexual urges, corrupt newspaper investigations and of course, love in an expected places.
There’s also the racism throughout, mainly represented by Jack’s maid Anita (Macy Gray), but it’s used well; Daniels is no stranger to portraying the racial worst of people on screen, and here uses it to explore the clashes within his cast. The scene for example where Jack uses ‘nigger’ in front of Anita, his instant shame at saying it and her disappointment that he has done so, is fantastic, and used to pull the two characters ultimately closer together. There’s a simmering sense of injustice and corruption to everything here cooking in the hot summer atmosphere and it’s a movie to just let wash over you.
The Paperboy is a trashy movie, but deliberately so, revelling in sex and violence and the obscene. It’s not a movie to be taken seriously, it’s one you’re supposed to be laughing with, not at, something the critics missed the first time around. The film works more as a black comedy centred on unpleasant characters and grim, sexually-charged tension and moves along with a breathless sense of energy; it’s very easy to just get swept along for the ride. The central plot – that of the murder and whether Hillary was responsible – becomes increasingly unimportant as the movie progresses, until by the end, it’s almost a sideline in a movie dealing with these characters and their bizarre relationships.
The Paperboy isn’t subtle – scenes of horrendous sex inter-cut with alligators and dead possums give an indication of the nuances here – this is a grotesque, silly and absurd movie, well-directed for what it is, with a fantastic 60s soundtrack too. There are a couple of scenes which push the boundaries of good taste so far that it’s obvious Daniels is just having fun. The film works as a throwback to 70s pulp and exploitation movies, with a semi-grindhouse edge to it. It’s not trying to be high-art. This is a movie happy to soak in the gutter and invites the audience down with it. Some of the plot does falter however as there’s a lack of clear structure, so the film progresses at an unusual pace, with a strangely half-hearted climax and the central frame and narration by Anita doesn’t work at all. That said, the film does have some fun with its odd structure, subverting audience expectations over what should happen, with some clever ideas – particularly if you pay attention to how the characters influence the plot for the worse, or how in a tease reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, the much marketed sex scene between Efron and Kidman occurs off-screen.
The low-tone throughout allows the cast to go to some pretty-exciting places. Everyone is on top-form in this movie – McConaughey is trashy and throws himself into the role, coming across as caring, overly committed to his job, but with a sense of bubbling surface tension, hidden darkness and anger. Like Oyelowo, his performance is based on lies, hidden truths and instability. Cusack plays against type as the lizard-like, utterly repugnant Hillary – a man so disgusting, racist and sexually perverted that the audience will feel like showering after seeing him on screen. Kidman deserves a heap of credit for an equally left-field performance; a sexually-charged, slutty and Southern performance, her Charlotte perfectly captures the desires and desperation of a certain kind of woman at a certain kind of age, and she’s utterly mesmerizing to watch. It’s great to see an actress have so much perverse fun with a role. Efron continues to shed his High School Musical roots with a sexually-repressed, temper driven performance. He’s a little bit raw at times and clearly, desperate to prove himself as an actor, but The Paperboy performance has promise and it’s likely Efron just needs the right vehicle, in form of script and director, to succeed. Being Efron too, he spends half of the movie in his underwear, which certainly isn’t something to complain about and honestly, adds to the exploitive, sweatily sexy vibe.
The Paperboy isn’t a great movie but that’s essentially the point. Its plot is muddled and it’s fairly unpleasant, rolling around in trash, but that works in its favour too – this is a pulpy throwback to an older time and particular style of filmmaking, with a great humid atmosphere and Southern Gothic vibe. The cast all deserve praise for going along with the ride. The film is worth seeing for Kidman’s performance alone. An interesting movie and one definitely worth watching – just don’t take it so seriously.c