Lurid psychodrama meets virtuosic Southern-born noir in The Paperboy, a deeply flawed, perpetually vulnerable, and sporadically repellent film from filmmaker Lee Daniels, that simultaneously manages to be immensely captivating, dangerously enigmatic, and poignantly provocative.
Picking up in Florida, 1969, a journalist for the Miami Times named Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) travels back to his hometown to investigate a murder case involving a possibly wrongly accused and unjustly tried death row inmate, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). As racist and prejudice as they come, the small town contains a few people of interest. Chief amongst them is Jack (Zac Efron), Ward’s brother and a retired (almost Olympian) swimmer who has fallen deeply infatuated with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Bless is a lover to many, including Hillary, and assists Ward and his writer in crime Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an African-American reporter from the U.K., with the divisive case.
The Paperboy continues with pure spontaneity, bouncing from the polarising Wetter case to Jack’s unabashed affection for Charlotte to some awfully unnatural (and that’s putting it lightly) moments with Ward and some black men, and bevy of other scenes that strike notes of peculiarity and insanity. Daniels, responsible for the 2009 Oscar award-winning Precious, unconventionally blends high art with a grimy, B-movie aesthetic that evokes disgust and sympathy. Considering the film’s propensity for teetering between self-parody and ultra-violent crime caper, it’s a miracle just how gripping the final product is.
Told through vivid flashbacks by Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family maid, The Paperboy holds a certain unexplainable mystique that frustrates, mystifies, and intrigues in equal measure. While many will chastise Daniels for his graphic exploitation and fetish for the obscurity, the film is – at the very least – ambitious enough to admire.
Efron and Kidman give bold performances unseen in contemporary cinema, Cusack’s Hillary is a mad man who – whether or not he committed the cop killing crime – should be placed in a mental institution and of the two reporters, Oyelowo brings a duality to his role that shocks and terrifies while McConaughey delivers a surprisingly heartfelt character.
Fearless as they come, Lee Daniels’ latest endeavor offers a spectrum of emotions and descriptions. Erotic, moving, twisted, devastating, and disturbing, The Paperboy lays all its cards out onto the table, open for both stern criticism and sanctimonious praise. Inevitably, the film deserves both.