Director Lee Daniels is not from the Lee Strasberg school of cinema; The Paperboy is a sexploitation, blacksploitation, murder mystery coming-of-age noir melodrama so luridly high-camp it would make Truman Capote blush.
When Capote published In Cold Blood – to which this film is indebted – in 1966, he did so with the knowing prose of a provocateur. But times have changed, and to get a rise these days you need Zac Efron – he of High School Musical fame – lying delirious on a beach covered in jelly fish tendrils, receiving as antidote a faceful of Nicole Kidman’s wee. Convenient excuse, those jellyfish; such is Kidman’s character in the film, he probably could have just asked her nicely.
The film begins with a whir of narrative told in long montage and a retrospective voice-over from Macy Gray’s reluctant house maid Anita. It’s Florida, 1969; Efron is Jack Jansen, a high-school drop-out mooching around his father’s home and delivering the newspaper the old man edits. The object of his desire is Charlotte Bless (Kidman), “a sexed-up Barbie doll” caught in a romance with backwater miscreant Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), on death row for the murder of a crooked sheriff. He will go to the chair for the crime, but should he be there in the first place? Jack’s older brother Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a journalist from the big-city, arrives with his reporting-partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) – a suave black man from London – to go through the evidence and chase out the truth.
If it doesn’t sound like a particularly original story, that’s because it isn’t. Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields – released as recently as 2011 – shared an unerringly similar storyline yet, despite the presence of Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Chloe Moretz, sunk without trace. So why has The Paperboy caused such a stir? African-American and openly gay, Daniels pours his singular gloss on the Deep South procedural thrillers of times past, from Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night, to Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.
And Daniels really does do gloss; if his taste is unreliable, his style and energy are relentless. While the violence in his breakout film Precious, a depiction of an obese girl sexually abused by her stepfather in gutter-Harlem, and in the Halle Berry-powered melodrama Monster’s Ball – which he produced – was lurid and lascivious, it was seemingly driven by concern for a black community brought low by poverty. The racial and sexual politics in The Paperboy, by comparison, aren’t as encumbered. Daniels wears them on his sleeve, shooting the film in a shimmery, scuzzy wash of colour and light, creating a casual surface tension that provides its actors – playing archetypes – free reign to demonstrate their A-league credentials.
And boy do they respond. Kidman is like a tsunami of estrogen, a white-trash beauty queen scary and vulnerable, seductive and repulsive all at once. She’s the star of the film’s only truly memorable moment, which Daniels has described as a “telepathic sex scene.” Face to face for the first time with John Cusack’s Hillary, the two ignore the watching guard and the Jansen brothers – both besotted themselves – to enact some warped prison sex act. It’s a jaw-dropping scene; ludicrous, charged and full of pathos.
“Fucking a man is the most natural thing in the world,” she tells Efron’s Jack soon after. Before you know it, they’re dancing together in the pouring rain, Efron stripped down to his Y-fronts. The Paperboy is a wild and decadent take on genre, a triumph of style over substance that knowingly tip-toes on the edge of farce. But, if there’s a comment to be made, it’s one of sex; the want and need for it, the way we use and sometimes abuse it, the desires that guide – and misguide us – as we seek to feel alive in our quest for death.
The Paperboy is in cinemas from today…
Text: Tom Seymour