Director Lee Daniels has a habit of falling madly in love with characters nobody else wants, out of an underclass littered with sociopaths, psychopaths and their victims. He has done it again in the sweat-soaked noir of ‘The Paperboy.’
It’s the Florida Everglades of the 1960s, and there is nothing friendly about this place, including the backcountry alligator skinner on death row, the chippy who’s fallen for him, or the journalists intent on saving him. An exceptional cast led by Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and John Cusack gives these tawdry miscreants a scuzzy, sexy, sad reality that is as unerring as it is unnerving.
Daniels is never one to shy away from the cruelty of humans, hatred that rises up like bile, unimaginable violence and depravity. Any joy, love or laughter that elbow their way into his work comes as more of an afterthought. Those themes are delivered in ‘The Paperboy’ with slightly less ferocity than we’ve seen in the other films Daniels has had a hand in — ‘Precious,’ ‘Monster’s Ball’ and ‘The Woodsman’ come to mind (the first he directed, the others he produced).
But don’t expect too much relief; he still manages to push his actors to new highs as their characters plummet to new lows. There is such unflinching passion in the piece that ‘The Paperboy’ deserves to be seen even though it can feel almost as flawed as its characters.
With Pete Dexter’s novel as a starting point (Daniels and Dexter share screenplay credit), the film begins with the gutting of a longtime local sheriff. A man with a mean streak and plenty of blood on his hands, no one mourned his death. The Moat County D.A., however, did prosecute one swamp rat named Hillary Van Wetter (a completely unhinged Cusack). By the time the film picks up the story in earnest, Van Wetter has been on death row long enough for the sassy Charlotte Bless, a tarted-up, down-market Kidman, to fall in love with him.
W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn) owns the local paper. His youngest son, Jack (Efron), a college dropout, now delivers it. The oldest is Ward (McConaughey), an investigative journalist of some acclaim at the Miami Times who has come home to dig into Hillary’s questionable conviction. He’s accompanied by his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who wields an aristocratic British accent like a sword and wears his disdain like a designer suit; that he is also black only serves to confuse the locals. Jack is enlisted as their driver. Charlotte shows up to help with her letters and files. Anita Chester (Macy Gray, in a surprisingly warm turn), the Jansens’ maid who took over raising the boys when their mother left, observes it all with a wary eye. There are any number of stories running on parallel tracks and they are inclined to bump into one another as they intersect and overlap. Characters have been expanded and altered to hit harder on issues of race and homophobia; journalistic integrity so central to the book has been let to slide.
Now the spine of the story is Jack’s growing infatuation with Charlotte, who is a sexual hot plate even when she’s treating him like a younger brother. While Hillary fumes in prison, Ward and Yardley’s investigating ruffles local feathers, and Jack and Charlotte flirt while he ferries her around. As they speed along the causeways, the film takes on the look of one of those old ‘50s postcards with a matte finish — gauzy and dreamy and sultry in the summer sun. (Veteran Roberto Schaefer, who also shot ‘Monster’s Ball,’ is the cinematographer.)
But it’s never long until the film wades back into the muck and mire. The muck and the mire, of course, brought Daniels’ breakthrough in 2009 with the Oscar-winning ‘Precious,’ defined by the illiterate, pregnant, abused, obese urban teen at its centre. Where ‘Precious’ had a more linear narrative, ‘The Paperboy’ is designed like a shell game, no one is exactly who they seem to be, and there are hidden agendas everywhere. With so much in play there are times when the sleight of hand fumbles. Jack’s journey from feckless college dropout to sobered adult is the one to watch, mostly because Charlotte is usually there and Ward always factors in. There is so much grit in Kidman and McConaughey’s performances, it’s a lot for Efron to stand up to, but he does a good job of giving Jack a cocky innocence that is disarming.
Kidman, though, is a force of nature, more vulnerable, more sensual than she has ever been. The control you usually see in her performances has been thrown to the wind, and the freedom she exudes is intoxicating, perhaps never more so than when she first comes face to face with Hillary. She is sitting across from him in a prison interview room. Yardley, Ward and Jack are there, but Hillary sees only her. It’s a remarkable scene for Cusack as well, as Hillary, feral and snarling, demands satisfaction. McConaughey’s Ward has needs of a different sort — some more pure than others. They lead him into dark places and bring some of the film’s most violent moments. The simmering sexuality that usually hangs on the actor is nowhere in sight. Never before has he portrayed a character less comfortable in his own skin, nor has he dug in deeper. Somehow between the potbelly, the ill-fitting pants and the pregnant pauses, he tells us all we need to know.
*The Paperboy releases in the UAE on November 29.