The Paperboy is a dish unlike anything you might have tasted before
225"With Charlotte it was like he was getting his mama, his high-school sweetheart, and an over-sexed Barbie doll rolled into one."
Dirty, sweaty, hot and humid, the oppressive atmosphere might well kill you in this lurid swamp-based period noir, the third feature from acclaimed director Lee Daniels, whose powerful and unforgiving sophomore effort - Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire - received significant Oscar recognition back in 2010.
This time round he still doesn't hold his punches, although the results have certainly been more divisive amongst critics and audiences alike, gaining the dubious record of the longest standing ovation in the history of the Cannes Film Festival (beating the previous record-holder, 2011's Best Film, Drive) - dubious because, by all accounts, the ovation consisted more of jeers than cheers. Undoubtedly it's hard to love this film, although there's a strangely compelling texture to its unpleasantly sordid tale, which will leave you both disturbed by it, and irresistibly drawn to it.
The story follows idealistic Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen and his ambitious assistant Yardley Acheman, who both return to Ward's hometown with a view to investigating the circumstances which put alleged killer Hillary Van Wetter on Death Row for the murder of a local sheriff. Driven by the persistence of Charlotte Bless, a highly-sexed local who has 'fallen in love with' Van Wetter after writing to him in prison, and aided by Ward's younger brother Jack - who shattered his dreams of becoming a professional athlete and is now just a paperboy for his dad's newspaper business - the four of them dig deep into the murder, and don't like what they find.
Based on the 1995 novel by the same name, The Paperboy has been in production for almost a decade, with acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In) initially interested in directing it, only to bow out in favour of a production credit only, with Lee Daniels replacing him. Certainly it's easy to see why Almodovar was interested; like the journalists in the tale itself, who are drawn to the salacious story, the Deep South blend of twisted sex and death is right up his street and would have made a heady cocktail for his US debut feature.
Unfortunately, whilst Almodovar's fingerprints remain visible throughout the piece (he participated in early drafts of the script), the thick and oppressive atmosphere also swamps the book's underlying messages - a commentary upon idealistic naivety, reflecting on the dangers of journalists questioning the legal system, and the ease by which good intentions can be perverted by corrupt ambition. Who knows whether, in better hands, this aspect could have featured more prominently, or whether it would have been so posed only at the expense of the addictive Southern style of the piece. This isn't John Grisham's A Time to Kill, after all.
So whilst you might not pause for thought about the sociopolitical ramifications harboured by the story, you'll still be drawn into the dark underbelly of this small town, complete with universally flawed but eminently human characters brought to life by an ensemble cast, most of which you have never seen quite like this before.
Violent, questionably consensual sex; violent rape and savage assault; throat-slitting, neck-breaking murder - indeed the infamous moment where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron is positively tame in comparison to the rest of the dark and depraved actions. Efron himself does surprisingly well in the lead role, smitten by the undeniably sexy wiles of Kidman's older vixen, whilst also caught up in an investigation that goes way over his head. He may still be the heartthrob famous for High School Musical, but, if this was the first movie you saw him in, you'd probably be quite impressed. It's amazing what a decent story and capable director can do for even the most ostensibly lightweight actor.
Matthew McConaughey is a prime example of that, too, having finally proved his worth in a serious of genuinely uncompromising roles - from the vile Killer Joe to a dedicated, Oscar-snubbed performance in Magic Mike; from the critically acclaimed Mud to his role here as the scarred elder Jensen brother, idealistic in motivation but also with his own unquestionably dark side. It's another brave performance.
Macy Gray's loving housemaid is also a revelation, making her character both strong and full of joy in spite of her position and the nastiness of those around her, and even David Oyelowo surprises in what is, ostensibly, a flimsy part, but one which develops in a very unpredictable fashion - he needs more parts like this and less like his sticking-out-like-sore-thumb lacklustre and unconvincing contribution to Jack Reacher.
The true stars though are Nicole Kidman and John Cusack. Now I've got to be honest with you - I've never really rated Kidman, despite enjoying some of her very early work (like Dead Calm). I've always felt she was overrated, and that her recently 'enhanced' features make her just another actress who is not prepared to age gracefully, also making her the last person who should get the opportunity to play the stunningly beautiful Princess Grace (Kelly) in the upcoming biopic. Here, however, she is simply brilliant as the trailer trash death row groupie who also gets in way over head, despite the fact that she acts like she knows exactly what she is doing. Aside from demonstrating undeniable, palpable sex appeal - you can genuinely see why men are simply drawn to her at an animal level - she shows a wonderfully touching vulnerability to her ostensibly vacuous character, particularly towards the brutal final act of the film.
Cusack too is devilishly marvellous as the death row killer looking for a reprieve. You've honestly never seen Cusack like this before - a sure step up from some of the lame performances he has delivered recently, and a long, long way away from the wisecracking, charmingly neurotic characters that he became known for following the success of Grosse Pointe Blank. He's veritably intimidating in the role, with a genuine presence, combining the characters of the redneck, inbred rapists from Deliverance with Robert DeNiro's ex-con Max Cady from Scorsese's effective Cape Fear remake. You really wouldn't want to face his swamp-bred version of Cady on his home turf.
Shot with what is soon going to become a director-specific style, Lee Daniels might not translate the underlying commentary across from the novel, but he still draws you into his sweaty, unpleasant swamp-of-a-movie. The dirtier the characters become - or show themselves to be - on their quest, the more captivated you are by the lurid proceedings; the director seeking to tap into the morbid curiosity and perverted fascination within each and every one of us, no matter how small, and get to us through that. And it works.
This is the closest we've gotten to a US Almodovar feature - and that should only be taken as a great compliment for the relatively new Daniels. Perhaps it might not quite agree with you, but The Paperboy is still a dish unlike anything you might have tasted before, and comes recommended, even if just to satisfy that darker side to your soul.
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