The Paperboy (2012)
Directed by Lee Daniels
There’s Zac Efron, the love-struck young protagonist. Nicole Kidman, the bombshell femme fatale. And John Cusack, the swamp-rat lunatic. If it looks like noir and sounds like noir, it probably is. But “The Paperboy” moves the noir genre south a bit. In more ways than one.
In the humid wetlands of Lately, Florida, 1969, convicted cop-murderer Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack, perfecting madness) is claiming innocence. At least a couple newspaper investigators, including Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), might believe him. So does the inmate’s new girlfriend-from-the-outside, the big-haired Southern belle Charlotte Bless (Kidman in a Golden Globe-nominated role). When Ward’s brother Jack (Efron, all grown up) starts to fall for the sultry Charlotte, the sexual tension (as thick as the butter that accompanies these Southerners’ every meal) really begins to heat this thriller up.
If the Oscars handed out awards for atmosphere, these hicks would snatch it up with their clammy hands. You can almost feel the sweat collecting on your brow. You’re probably just empathizing with these sweaty stars, but maybe it’s all those uncomfortable scenes of titillating carnal arousal. Kidman peeing on Efron’s jellyfish stings or Kidman and Cusack’s first “conjugal” visit. Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is no stranger to making you feel uncomfortable. If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the bedroom, I guess.
John Cusack brings creepy to the next level. Living in alligator country with his commune of a family, Van Wetter couldn’t help it. But he could help his untamable violent and sexual urges. He just doesn’t want to. This isn’t your younger sister’s Zac Efron. No, he can possess enough emotional depth to pull even this truly moving role. He sees his first true love and his brother fall victim to abuse, tries to cope with his father’s new girlfriend (who’s trying to replace his mom), and he has to learn to grow up. His life will rush that process along. Matthew McConaughey ditches his charm for some serious depth. This isn’t a role for the faint of heart. His multi-dimensional character has layers that take a while to be revealed. McConaughey handles it like a seasoned pro. The rough, raw voice of Macy Gray, playing the Jansens’ server Anita, provides the noir-ready narration and provides insight into the characters’ thoughts and desires. Especially the pubescent Jack, whose fantasies are shown with back-and-forth shots between him and Charlotte and the sounds of lively Motown in the background. It’s an invaluable method of getting straight to the point. But, like in many great noirs, Daniels felt like some extended periods of silence could do wonders for the heightening of suspense. He was dead right.
But where did the story go? Based on the sensational novel by Peter Dexter, the story is engaging in the beginning: a much-maligned swamp rat convicted of cop-murder has a few convinced that he might have been framed. It looked like it would turn into an edge-of-your-seat crime mystery, with noir-ish elements of love and suspense. And sure, it had both, but the crime investigation that seemed the heart of the story at the beginning turned into something swept under the rug. Instead we just get a few situations tossed together. I have no complaints about the acting or the cinematography, but the script was as choppy as John Cusack with a machete. Things happened, but the only way you knew was in light conversation. More time was spent in Jack’s fantasies than in the case unfolding. Too bad, because they were on to something great.
Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer (“Stranger Than Fiction”) approaches “The Paperboy” as one might a documentary, adding much to the realism of the story. Close profile shots, quick shot transitions, and, like I mentioned before, periods of silence, all make you feel like you’re right there wading through the swamplands of Florida. It’s uncomfortable at times, but so goes life.
Southern noir rocks. Where better to grip the audience with violence and sex than the sultry wetlands of the 1960s’ American South? It could have been way better, but “The Paperboy” gets to you.