With severe subject matter and strong sexual content, Paperboy delivers the unexpected
By Jimmy Gillman
Its severe subject matter and strong sexual content will likely turn some viewers off, but director Lee Daniels uses those elements effectively to craft an incisive, steamy, racially-charged character study cum slice-of-life crime drama about a Miami reporter who returns to the small Florida town of his youth to investigate the case of a death row inmate.
The stage is set in the opening scene with the beginnings of an interview that will morph into the film’s narration. The subject of the interview is Anita Chester (Macy Gray), formerly the longtime housekeeper for the Jansen family, whose members include W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn), owner and editor of the town’s local newspaper, and his two sons, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Jack (Zac Efron).
The Paperboy then flashes back to 1969. Like most African-Americans at the time, Anita is at once a beloved member of the Jansen family and subjugated employee, a queer alliance of emotions that was common in many southern households.
Anita’s story takes up with Ward’s return home to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a dangerous backwoods miscreant who has been convicted of killing the town’s hated sheriff. Ward knows Van Wetter’s a lowlife, but he believes the case against him is phony.
Accompanying Ward is his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo), a well-educated black man who hails from London. The two men take up residence at the Jansen home, where Ward is reunited with Jack and Anita.
Also in the mix is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a sexy, free-wheeling type with an obsession for men in prison who contacted Ward after the trial. She’s been corresponding with Van Wetter and professes to be in love with him, and the killer only consents to see the reporters if Charlotte is in tow.
It isn’t long before each of these men becomes entangled with Bless, but not because she’s the kind of femme fatale moviegoers have come to expect, one of many twists Daniels and co-screenwriter Peter Dexter (upon whose novel the film is based) incorporate to keep The Paperboy from being predictable film noir.
In fact, most of the story’s salacious aspects develop organically, preventing The Paperboy from becoming a mere exploitation flick. While there’s plenty of sex (as advertised), none of it is of the erotic, loving kind, and viewers seeking titillation will be disappointed.
At the same time, because of the foregoing, The Paperboy turns out to be wholly credible, and that credibility makes it both interesting and insightful, with a creeping sense of foreboding appropriate to the story and the film’s melancholy milieu.
The performances are excellent (Gray, Efron and Kidman are standouts), the period detail flawless and the cinematography dripping with atmosphere, reflecting the sticky situations each of the characters find themselves facing in this dark and challenging film.