The Paperboy delivers the Sweat
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I expected Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy to be a lot more like Wild Things. This was no doubt a result of the similar South Florida setting, with its serenely sinister swamps and sweat-inducing heat. And both films open with a who-dunnit murder mystery, but where Wild Things is primarily concerned with who is killing/fucking who, it quickly becomes evident that The Paperboy couldn’t care less about who murdered the horrible town sheriff (who is grossly overweight, to emphasise his horribleness). Rather, it is the story of a handful of people who are all looking for gratification (both romantic and sexual) in the wrong places.
The film is set in 1969, when racial tensions are simmering but not quite explosive. The setting provides an interesting backdrop to the story, although it doesn’t have a strong influence on the proceedings. Matthew McConaughey plays reporter Ward Jansen, who returns to his home town to investigate the murder of the sheriff. A man has been convicted (John Cusack at his most greasy), though he professes his innocence. Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte, a local woman who has been writing to him in prison and has fallen in love with him. She also believes that he is innocent and assists in the investigation, to the delight of Ward’s horny younger brother Jack (Zac Efron).
The plot here is not particularly interesting, especially when compared with more traditional thrillers. This is partly because the film has the set-up of a thriller but then eschews the tropes of that genre until its final act; after the who-dunnit opening, the film turns into something of a family drama. What keeps this section engaging is the performances, which are strong across the board. McConaughey continues his 2012 winning streak, while Kidman steals her scenes as the deliciously trashy and determined Charlotte. She hasn’t been this much fun since To Die For, and a scene of her dancing in the rain evokes fond memories of that film. Efron already showed some acting chops in 2009’s Me and Orson Welles, but this is a stronger, more confident performance. He easily holds his own against his older colleagues. But the real surprise here is singer-turned-actor Macy Gray. She appeared in Daniels’ debut feature, 2005’s Shadowboxer, and returns here as the Jensens’ maid. She has a warm, resonant chemistry with Efron, and gets most of the film’s best lines.
But while the performances are strong, the characters themselves are only interesting to a point. They mostly feel like puppets in a vague allegory, and often act in ways that seem to suit the script more than their personality. Why is Charlotte in love with the convicted Hillary Van Wetter? The film makes it clear that her affection is misguided (or driven by some perverse masochism) but never offers even a superficial reason for her actions. Similarly, Jack’s infatuation with Charlotte feels more like plot machinations than a genuine emotional attachment (the lust however, rings true). I was happy to accept the story as camp fun, but I suspect that the film was trying to elicit a more emotional response. The only moving scenes are those between the two brothers, or between Efron and Gray, who share a much stronger rapport than the one he has with Kidman.
The Paperboy is Daniels’ first feature script and while it has some strong scenes – and is impressively ambitious – it is rather messy. Major turning points happen off-screen, often papered-over by Macy Gray’s rambling narration (which is sometimes hilarious but mostly just clunky). At other times, the narration is redundant, telling us exactly what we are about to see, or a crutch, telling us things that are not shown at all (like when she tells us that Jack is fiercely jealous of another character, despite no on-screen evidence of this). To some degree, I like that Daniels is more concerned with plot momentum than with scenes of exposition, but it takes a while to get used to this hap-hazard style of storytelling.
Throughout the film, Daniels’ direction is striking, as is Roberto Schaefer’s beautifully grainy cinematography. There is a distinct lack of subtlety here (perhaps most evident when Daniels cuts from Cusack acting like a pig to a shot of an actual pig) but it fits the rather hysterical tone of the scenes in question. The camera lingers on each of the main actors, often sexualising them, at other times emphasising their vulnerability. Such visual flourishes help to carry the film through some of its more clunky scenes.
Where the film really picks up is the final act, when Daniels plunges us into the swamp and the thriller elements return. Sure, this section is incredibly silly, but the film seems more comfortable in this territory, embracing its exploitation side. It is here that Daniels’ direction is also at its strongest; the swamp is a superbly atmospheric setting, and he maintains an impressive sense of tension.
It is hard to tell how history will position The Paperboy. It is slightly too earnest to be a camp classic like Showgirls and much too silly to be an indie darling. I suspect that it will fade from public consciousness like the great Black Snake Moan, another film that occupies that dreaded space between exploitation and self-important art. It is definitely a fun excursion into steamy, fairly ridiculous territory, and even manages a couple of affecting moments. I sense that Daniels’ striking images will linger in my mind, even as my memory of the story quickly fades.
- A Thought Provoking Yet Exhausting Visual Experience: THE PAPERBOY’s Cinematography (reelclub.wordpress.com)