The Paperboy (2012)
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack
Synopsis: A reporter returns to his Florida home-town to investigate a case involving a death row inmate.
Well now, this is different. It’s unlikely that you’ll have seen a movie in which so many messed up people gather together to play out a predictably tragic drama in such lurid fashion. After all, how many movies can boast scenes in which a leading lady excites her future husband to sexual climax by simulating fellatio during a supervised prison visit, and then urinates on a teenage boy who lusts after her to soothe his potentially fatal jelly fish stings? And don’t forget a supporting character who hides a dark secret which results in him lying bloodied, hog-tied and naked on a plastic sheet after rough sex with a couple of black guys he drunkenly picked up in a bar? One thing you can’t accuse The Paperboy of is being boring.
All this debauchery takes places in the typically sweltering heat of the Deep South in the late 1960s. Zac Efron is Jack Jansen, son of a wealthy newspaper owner (Scott Glenn). Jack’s working for his dad after dropping out of college, but when older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns to the home town with black British writer Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), Jack agrees to work as their driver. Ward is in town to investigate a possible miscarriage of justice. Local man Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is languishing in prison awaiting electrocution for the murder of a sheriff, but Ward has been alerted to the possible injustice of this sentence by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-something woman who corresponds with a number of prisoners.
Charlotte is the lurid fantasy of every young man who ever dreamed about bedding an older woman. She has fluffed blonde hair, come-to-bed eyes and full, luscious lips. She’s like a Barbie doll come to life — and Jack is smitten by her the first time they meet. Charlotte, however, is betrothed to Van Winter, the man she is attempting to free from prison, although God only knows why, because it’s clear within seconds of him entering the story that there isn’t one ounce of goodness in him. In addition to all this sexual tension, the racial element is brought into play by the presence of Anita Chester (Macy Gray), the Jansen’s black house maid (and unlikely narrator of the story), and Acheman, although this appears to be more a nod to the era in which the story takes place than a pertinent component of the storyline.
There’s no doubt you will never meet a more damaged group of individuals in one movie. Jack’s desire for Charlotte stems from the loss of his mother as a child and the lack of a suitable substitute (his father has worked his way through a number of women since Jack’s mother died) in his life. He wonders around a lot in nothing but a pair of pristine white pants, signifying presumably both his sexual blossoming and his comparative innocence compared to the other cast members. Charlotte is a lost cause, caught up in a self-destructive urge to be subservient to a ruthlessly dominant character; Ward, an apparent crusader, is secretly prone to equally self-destructive tendencies, while Yardley Acheman is a manipulative fraud. As for Van Wetter — well he’s just bad, through and through.
It’s something of a surprise to see such a strong cast in a movie like this, but The Paperboy benefits immeasurably from their presence. Kidman gives probably the best performance of her career as a vivacious woman seemingly resigned to a life of emotional unhappiness, a sign that she, perhaps of all the characters, is the most self-aware. She knows what she is, knows the path she is travelling, and knows it’s pointless to try and change any of it. Kidman immerses herself in the role with an intensity that was previously unseen from her. McConaughey is as reliable as ever in a complex, morally ambiguous role, while Efron shows signs here of maturing into an accomplished actor capable of handling serious roles. Playing against type, John Cusack is genuinely frightening as the kind of amoral character you hope never to meet outside of a movie.
Because of its dark content and themes, The Playboy won’t be for all tastes and the quality of its cast undoubtedly affords it a measure of respectability it might otherwise have lacked. The movie received only a limited release which illustrates just how un-commercial its themes are. But for those who like adult material that explores the darker reaches of the human psyche without descending into overt pornography or violence then The Paperboy provides a compelling study of just how self-destructive the human urge can be.