Dark sexual longing adds weight to the evocative mystery of ‘The Paperboy’
The mark of a successful period piece can be how tactilely evocative the setting feels, even if you haven’t been there. Tom Tykwer did it masterfully in Perfume, conjuring the aromas of 18th century France, and Stephen Frears made you feel the face powder in Dangerous Liaisons.
In The Paperboy, by the time you realize that director Lee Daniels has made you feel the bites of mosquitoes on the back of your sweat-drenched neck, you’re all-in. But you don’t have to wait until then to become hypnotized by this poignant and unique tale of taboo sexual longing pinched between the tongs of racism and violence.
It’s a sweltering summer in 1969 in Moat County, Fla., a rural back-swamp where even the sheriff got so corrupt, someone slit his belly until he dragged his guts along a mile of dusty road. Redneck poster boy Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) has been convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, but crusading reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) isn’t satisfied that justice has been done. Ward has a Pulitzer under his belt and returns to his hometown with his arrogant black colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to find out what really happened.
The Paperboy hints at movies as diverse as The Help and A Time to Kill and Just Cause (a dreadful “thriller” also set in a drecky bayou), but Daniels and his co-writer, Pete Dexter, have pieced it together with a collagist’s sense of order. It suggests and skips and twists the narrative, turning potentially comic moments (Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron?!?) into intensely frightening ones. If you feel unsettled and a little confused, well, imagine how the characters feel living through it.
Efron plays McConaughey’s younger brother, an athlete with the soul of a poet trapped in a dead-end job working for his father’s newspaper. He lusts after Van Wetter’s prison-correspondence fiancée (Kidman, effectively trashy) while idolizing his enigmatic brother.
Sure, it’s nice that Efron spends most of his scenes in his underwear, but the biggest revelation is how sensitive and complex an actor he has become, holding his own against Kidman and McConaughey (in his most shocking role — though savvy viewers will see the twist to his character coming early on). Macy Gray, as the housekeeper who recounts the story, shows depth as well, though Cusack, while creepy, fails to convey the inherent menace the role calls for.
Daniels, who won an Oscar nom directing Precious, has another film to be proud of here — one just as dark and challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 12, 2012.