Paperboy, The (United States, 2012)October 03, 2012
Whatever else it may be cited for, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious, is not going be called "the feel-good movie of 2012." An unsettling period piece mystery (the period being the late 1960s), The Paperboy is steeped in the so-called "Southern Gothic" milieu. The irony of the resolution will not be lost on viewers but the movie as a whole is a rather grim, dismal experience where the elements never quite gel. There are some splendidly over-the-top performances - chiefly those of Nicole Kidman and John Cusack, both cast against type - but the biggest narrative hole lies at the center. The lead character, played by Zac Efron, is dull, uninteresting, and poorly conceived. His sole purpose seems to be to provide a relatively normal, somewhat likable entity in a sea of damaged and depraved individuals who are defined primarily by their secrets and fetishes. The ending is bleak, but not much more so than the 100-odd minutes leading up to it.
The reason to see the film is more the performances than the story, which is haphazardly told. Kidman is fantastic, oozing a primal sexuality that is so unexpected it's all the more mesmerizing. Her Charlotte is a creature of base urges and unfiltered desires yet, underneath everything, there's something touchingly vulnerable about her. Kidman brings all this, and more, to the screen. Playing opposite her in the movie's most creepy, compelling scene is John Cusack in the kind of role he has never before attempted: a vile, irredeemable monster. One could argue that Cusack's most recognizable trait as an actor is his likability. We relate to him. For him to essay a character like this forces him to submerge that aspect of his personality, and he accomplishes it with frightening success.
The structure features a forced and unnecessary voiceover culled from the "testimony" given by a witness to events (the family housekeeper, played by Macy Gray) during an interview at a later date. Events start out with the murder of an unpopular, racist sheriff and the possibly wrongful conviction of "white trash" animal Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) for the killing. Hillary is on death row when two Miami journalists arrive in the small Florida backwater town hoping to uncover civil rights abuses and use that as a stepping stone to a Pulitzer. They are native son Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey) and ambitious Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo). Ward's younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), is hired as their driver, making him an unintentional participant in events. Hillary has recently become engaged to Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a woman with whom his lone interaction has been a series of letters. Charlotte, who is bored and perpetually horny, has a thing for dangerous men and has convinced herself that she is in love with the man on death row. As Ward and Yardley dig into matters, they discover a trail of misdirection that is further muddied by fabrications devised by Yardley. Jack falls in love with Charlotte - a potentially fatal mistake.
The Paperboy has plenty of atmosphere. It oozes it, elevating the setting - a rural, swamp-bounded town in Florida - to the level of a supporting character. The movie is set in the 1960s but many of the characters seem trapped in a time warp from a much older era. One of the movie's most graphic sequences (which I assume was accomplished by the use of special effects) has a character disemboweling and gutting a dead alligator. During this scene, I found myself flashing back to a moment in the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. (In that movie, special effects were not used when it came to animal gore.)
The screenplay, written by Daniels and Pete Dexter based on Dexter's 1995 novel, touches on a variety of thematic issues, including the embedded culture of racism and corruption in the South during the '60s and '70s, the fluidity of "truth" in some investigative journalism, and the question of whether the end justifies the means. There's nothing idealistic about The Paperboy. In fact, if anything, the movie takes a stand that idealism is foolish and counterproductive.
One of the biggest problems with The Paperboy is that the two most promising characters, brothers Ward and Jack, are by far the least interesting individuals. After two ferocious portrayals of colorful men in Magic Mike and Killer Joe, McConaughey fails to enervate and energize this movie. Efron's performance is okay, but his character is dull. The murder mystery is tepid - a potboiler that wants to be taken more seriously than it deserves and is often treated as little more than a distraction. In the end, there's a feeling of incompleteness to the movie - not because of the way it ends (which is pretty unambiguous) but because of how various subplots are presented and addressed. This is something the slow, brooding tone and a few lurid revelations cannot obfuscate.
Paperboy, The (United States, 2012)
Cast: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Scott Glenn, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray
Screenplay: Lee Daniels, Pete Dexter, based on the novel by Pete Dexter
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Music: Mario Grigorov
U.S. Distributor: Millennium Entertainment