Swamps, sweat, humidity and crime. Lee Daniels’ third directorial effort takes a curious look at Southern USA in the late 1960s. Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel (with a screenplay from Dexter and Daniels), The Paperboy follows a small group of Southerners led by the recently returned teenager Jack Jensen (Zac Efron). Love-struck Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) comes to Jack’s journalist brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) to assist with the exoneration of her most recent boyfriend/prison inmate Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack), whom she believes was wrongfully incarcerated over the murder of the local and hated sherif. As the investigation gets underway, a seedy underbelly is exposed, placing the main characters in the thick of it all.
The Florida presented in this film is viscerally sticky and criminally turbulent. The term ‘pulpy’ only begins to describe the associations placed upon the characters and their settings. Belonging to a world of dirt, crime, degradation and cheapness, The Paperboy’s characters exhibit their behaviours without shame, but with self-awareness. These are characters that know they are low-class. While the filmmakers and the audience can both take part in a melange of different textual readings, the characters are engaging on a simple, basic and primal playing ground.
A significant shift occurs when the main four characters visit Hillary in prison. A sexual scene takes place between Hillary and Charlotte, without the two participating characters even touching each other or revealing any skin. Hillary previews the primal beast he later unlocks towards the end of the film, and engages Charlotte in a bizarre sexual encounter that leaves everyone, including the audience, feeling especially dirty. The moment is humourous, but also changes the pace from quirky to full on messed up. (And it should be noted that this scene is especially more messed up than the infamously urination scene between Kidman and Efron.)
Lee Daniels has a knack for getting strong performances out of his female actors, and The Paperboy is no exception. Nicole Kidman is something of a revelation as Charlotte, displaying a shifting vulnerability and melodic rawness. Charlotte is a touch like Maggie the Cat from Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; bored and senseless with a brutal sexuality, dangerous with the potential for the harm that she may lead herself into. Kidman holds nothing back, unleashing a whirlwind performance and chews up every piece of scenery she can get her hands on.
Excellent and purposeful tacky cheapness reigns over the production design, showing the desire for its characters to look classier, but without having the ability to ever actually achieve so. With fierce performances, The Paperboy is an enjoyable character study in tackiness so repulsive that it exudes an alluring charm.
The Paperboy is in Australian cinemas from 28 February through Roadshow Films.